Atheist Alliance Intl. Gender Balance Report

by | March 3, 2016

Numbers matter. Be counted.

Atheist Alliance International (AAI) has released its report on gender imbalance within the atheist movement. AAI’s Position Statement explains,

Atheist Alliance International has been running an Atheist Census project for the past several years. One of the striking results of this project has been the gross gender imbalance in participation (and, presumably, self-identification) that the project has consistently shown. AAI believes that this gender imbalance is a problem within the atheist movement and community that needs to be rectified.  This report – a compilation of research on the causes of the imbalance, as well as possible solutions, was compiled as a response to this issue.

While Atheist Alliance International does not believe that we can solve this problem on our own, we do believe that it is a significant and urgent issue that should be seriously addressed by movement and community leaders in order to strengthen the foundations of our community and forward our movement.

The  information in the AAI Gender Balance Report, compiled in 2016 by AAI Board Members Carlos Afredo Diaz (Argentina) and John Hamill (Ireland), is not unexpected:

At the time of writing, the Atheist Census Project recorded that on average worldwide, 73.2% of respondents were male.

The male female ratio is a little better in Canada. Out of the 12,778 responses from Canada, 69.3% were male and 30% were female. Why do significantly more men than women in Canada and worldwide self-identify as non-religious?

To answer this question, AAI “sought the input of atheists and secularists from outside the 73.2% of male respondents to [its] census” and grouped the responses under three headings: aggressiveness, socialisation, and selection.

In general, aggressiveness is not considered an admirable quality in men or women, but men are more likely to get away with being aggressive, which “may lead men to more readily adopt a public position opposing a deity.”

As the Report notes, “many cultures have historically socialised women into deferential and dutiful roles.” Regardless of the society or the culture, women are viewed and view themselves, either consciously or unconsciously, as caregivers which “may incline women to be more conservative and risk averse, thereby creating a tendency towards the prevailing religiosity.”

The AAI Report admits “One area that demanded particular scrutiny across the responses, related to the selection of candidates for conference panels, working committees, management teams, etc.” However, the Report cautions “Gender discrimination leading to all-male speaking panels may not even be conscious” because “[a]ll of us are influenced by cultural and societal norms and we may have learned behaviours and biases that could include misogynist influences.” So again, socialisation, either consciously or unconsciously, leads both genders to chose males rather than a balance of males and females to represent them when it is practical and possible to do so. While all organisations should be aware of the effects of socialisation, the AAI Report maintains that “an historical socialisation of women leading to the over-representation of men with atheist organisations, is an issue that atheist organisations can actively seek to address today.”

The AAI Report concludes with three recommendations that encourage the creation of gender equality policies, gender quotas, and awareness:

  • Atheist Alliance International will recommend to all of our affiliate groups that they should document and adopt a formal Gender Equality Policy.
  • Atheist Alliance International will recommend to all of our affiliate groups that they should adopt gender quotas for their leadership structures and for any speaker panels that they arrange during conferences or public meetings. The level at which those quotas should be set, can be dependent on the size of the group.
  • Several responses to the Atheist Alliance International questionnaire suggested that remedial actions need not all be restrictive, in terms of limiting the over-representation of men. Rather, some awareness raising initiatives aimed at those of all gender identities may be useful.

While the AAI Gender Balance Report’s recommendation are addressed to the Atheist Alliance International organisation, the Board of Atheist Alliance International and Atheist Alliance International’s affiliate groups, the Report is a valuable resource for all atheist organisations. The Report is clear, concise and focused; moreover, it could motivate women who have not yet self-identified as non-religious and who have not been counted in the Atheist Census to do so.

These women may agree with the response, included in the report, from Professor Christine Overall (Department of Philosophy and Gender Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada)

“Capable women can still be shy and may not wish to be public about their skepticism. It may be that atheism is – or seems – too bold, too strong, too confident, even too outrageous, to be consistent with women’s stereotypical gendered characteristics (lack of confidence, quietness, submission to authority).”

However, these women may find that too bold, too strong, too confident, and even too outrageous are liberating qualities that can catapult them to an equal place in the atheist movement and atheist organizations.

16 thoughts on “Atheist Alliance Intl. Gender Balance Report

  1. Randy

    The term “imbalance” implies that there is a desired “balance”. This is a fallacy. We should want everyone to be atheist, and make our best arguments for why atheism is reasonable, and theism is not.

    What we should NOT do is say that religious people do bad things, particularly to some subset of people, and then say they should “join atheism” because religious people are bad. That’s no reason to be atheist. Similarly, we should not adopt some other dogma that might attract the naturally dogmatic.

    To the extent people are involved in leadership, it should be based entirely on their actual ability to lead, not some mythical “balance”. There is simply no such thing as a better ratio. There are only better overall numbers.

    Also, it would be foolish to pretend that there are not significant biologically-based differences between the sexes, as groups. The field of “gender studies” is equivalent to religion, and their claims should receive similar skepticism.

    “Adopt gender quotas” is a non-starter, due to the inherent and inescapable sexism involved, not to mention the policing of trans people. No organization serious about equality would touch such a thing.

    1. Pierre Thibault

      I disagree. We should criticize the actions taken by religious people motivated by religion. It is our duty. I don’t want to see atheists becoming popular and the same time ineffective.

      One way to attract people would be to help people leave their faith. I think there is a lot of people struggling with the issue.

  2. Jeff J

    I’ve always felt atheism is an easier position for men to take because they have less to lose. Men are often described as bold or assertive when speaking their minds. We all know plenty of less flattering words used to describe women doing the same.

    I’m absolutely in favour of quotas for leadership structures and speakers. I feel tangible efforts work better than nebulous policies or awareness campaigns when it comes to addressing the “inherent and inescapable sexism” in everyday life. Just one example: female instructors are systematically evaluated more harshly than males, by students with identical outcomes. It’s very easy to be sexist – and racist – without even realizing it. We have to correct for it. If there is a better way to address subconscious sexism than quotas, I have yet to hear about it.

  3. Tim Underwood

    Abrahamic religious tradition is mostly a male vocation. It is literally dripping with male expression. It stands to reason that it would be other males who would oppose religious conquest.

    Atheism, as a philosophical position, has had many female proponents from Ayn Rand to Madelyn O’Hare.

    Women who support religious authority usually enjoy male domination. Women who oppose religious authority usually distain male domination.

    Religion, as we experience it, is the human form of herd formation and maintenance. Fewer women are hormonally motivated to engage in this activity. On the other hand, there is no shortage of beta male support for the preeminent herd males.

  4. Joe

    I think ‘quotas’ are generally a bad thing when you are talking about selecting leaders…. but striving to make the leadership more representative of the membership of an organization is certainly a worthy goal. An all male leadership in an organization that is 30% women should encourage and mentor women, with the goal of having them better represented and part of the decision making process. I don’t care if it’s the current year.

    Speakers and panels and such are a different issue. If an organization identifies a group or community that it wants to connect more with, resourcing people from that target community is a great way to both engage and build connections. This is purely marketing. That is what speakers do, it is their main function. This is how you increase membership. At which point, striving to make the leadership more representative… Again comes into play.

    1. Veronica Abbass Post author

      “An all male leadership in an organization that is 30% women should encourage and mentor women. . .”

      Why do women need mentoring?

        1. Veronica Abbass Post author

          Only if the woman/women are not already leadership material.

          1. Joe

            I’d say the exact opposite, if they aren’t leadership material… You’d be wasting both your time, both encouraging and/or mentoring them.

  5. Veronica Abbass Post author

    You are assuming that the males in “An all male leadership in an organization are leadership material” and are capable of cultivating leaders. That’s an incredibly arrogant assumption.

    1. Joe

      Hahah. No. You should know by now, I am much too cynical and antiauthoritarian for that.

      Lots of people in leadership positions aren’t good leaders, and some are absolutely incompetent, however, note that I used the word ‘should’, as in, cultivating new leaders is something I consider a good thing. And, a representative leadership is worth cultivation. Something good leaders do.

      I think some men/women/other would make terrible leaders, which is why simply having a vagina, or a penis, or whatever, is not a good basis for filling a quota.

  6. Indi

    > I think some men/women/other would make terrible leaders, which is why simply having a vagina, or a penis, or whatever, is not a good basis for filling a quota.

    I can’t imagine that anyone who has ever advocated a quota has implied that having the “correct” skin colour or genital plumbing is the *ONLY* requirement. Rather, the point is to look for someone within the group with the “correct” skin colour or genital plumbing that has the required skill set. The purpose of doing it this way is to counteract the demonstrable biases against that group by adjusting your selection criteria to compensate.

    Or to look at it another way: While there’s no doubt that some women would make terrible leaders, there is also no doubt that some would make fantastic leaders. But given the clear bias in the selection process, those women will not get a fair shot. So how do we fix this problem? We can’t simply remove the bias from the selection process because it’s latent and systemic. So instead we deliberately introduce a counteracting bias.

    Or to look at it yet another way: Assuming that all genders have equal probability of producing good leaders (assuming that men are not somehow naturally superior leaders), the fact that the leadership is not representative of the general population within statistical bounds indicates that the leadership selection process is flawed: it isn’t producing the optimal set of leaders. Unless and until we can know exactly how and where it is broken – so we can fix the specific issues with the process – the best solution for fixing the bias, mathematically and logically, is to give more weight to the things that are being biased against. In this case, the bias is disadvantaging women, so we tip the scales in favour of women to compensate.

    It’s not *just* about “simply having a vagina”. To view it that way is to ignore the bigger picture. The bias isn’t being skewed toward “having a vagina” simply because we like vaginas, or because we have some ideological drive to give favours to vaginas or the people built around them. The fact is that there is an extant bias *AGAINST* people with vaginas… and this is a fact, that can and has been demonstrated many times in many ways… and *THAT* is why the counter-bias must be *FOR* people with vaginas, even though “simply having a vagina” has nothing to do with leadership skills. The counter-bias has no purpose other than to defeat the existing bias, and thus produce more optimal results overall.

    It’s the exact same logic we use when calibrating scientific and engineering equipment: If the scale is biased too far to one side, we add some more weight to the other to balance it out and get a true, correct reading. We don’t add weight to the one side just because we like that side or because we have some political agenda that makes us prefer that side over the other. We do it because that’s what overrules the existing bias. Nothing more, nothing less.

    I get that the idea of quotas rubs some people as “unfair”, but again, that’s only if you’re ignoring the bigger picture. The game is *ALREADY* unfair. The proof of that is myriad. Quotas are an unbalancing factor, but when they are applied specifically to counteract an *existing* imbalance, they are the polar opposite of unfair. They are restoring fairness to the game.

    1. Joe

      “The game is *ALREADY* unfair.”
      I agree, but I would argue sex and race, in Canada at least, take a backseat to wealth and nepotism. And education, family tradition, and wealth do correlate with atheism/religious belief.

      That said, we’re not talking about communities that are 50/50, and many are relatively small.

      When Trudeau Jr. did the cabinet that way, he was fortunate to have a good group to pick from. If he had gotten a minority government however, it might not have been just down to a principle of fairness. He could have easily had more qualified women candidates… Or the reverse.

      I fully support efforts to include women and minorities, and think we should make it a priority, but the word ‘quota’ tends to imply a rigidity that given our ratios and small numbers, is as they say, problematic.

      1. Indi

        > I agree, but I would argue sex and race, in Canada at least, take a backseat to wealth and nepotism.

        That’s probably true, and I’d also suspect other things like regional factors (atheists – especially involved atheists – are probably more likely to live in more urban areas than rural, etc.). But those are other problems that can be dealt with another day, not least after we do some studies to get a clear handle on just how bad those imbalances are (assuming they even exist). There is no reason to think that focusing on the gender imbalance issue for now will make those other problems any worse, and many reasons to think that it will actually make eventually solving them much easier.

        There are a number of strong motivations to fix the biases we know of ASAP, without fretting over other known or potential biases. The most obvious motivation is that the existence of the bias implies the leadership is less than optimal, and anything that improves the quality of the leadership will naturally have positive ripple effects. Even if eliminating/reducing the gender bias means only a tiny improvement in the leadership (and there are many good reasons to believe the improvement will be more than tiny), that improved leadership promises other benefits. The sooner we get those benefits, the better.

        1. Joe

          It’s not focus I have an issue with, it’s tactics. Quotas are a sledgehammer, sure you can hammer in that nail with one, and quickly, but you’ll likely as not to take out the wall doing it. If your group is 30% men, and your group leadership is as well, I would say you are doing fine. Obviously trying to attract more men is likely to be a priority.

          But if you have a 50/50 membership, and 90% male leadership, that’s a problem. How necessary it is for an immediate remedy(quotas) depends on the situation. Small organizations often skew in one direction or another, but the question is, how much of a problem is the current imbalance creating?

          A larger organization really has no excuse, but then the question is how did it get this way? Is there a serious toxic culture of overt racism/sexism? Or could the remedy be found in the mid to longer term simply by shuffling some resources in the direction of more diversity.

          There are groups and interests that simply tend to attract certain types of people, because of broader social/cultural factors. It’s not always going to be 50/50 everywhere all the time.

          Encouraging/supporting minorities, even with regards to men in primary school teaching jobs, can have positive outcomes even if gender parity is never a reality.

  7. Kevin Graham

    All individuals who have been schooled in Canada are taught to believe that anyone can become Prime Minister. But is this truly the political reality within our nation. All previous PM’s have been Christians, and white males, but for Kim Campbell who was appointed as PM by PM Mulroney.
    So if one analyzes our political history and based on the law of mathematical probability the actual chance of any other type of person becoming our PM is remote to the decimal point.
    The reality is that to be Prime Minister (up until now) one must be a Christian white male over 40 at least.(usually over 50)
    So what of all the other Canadians who would dearly love to serve Canada in this capacity but do not fit with the criteria of what is acceptable as Prime Minister of Canada.
    Furthermore if one analyzes the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth as it is now one will find much the same ideology in regards to who leads those nations as well.
    It seems the Queen of England just prefers to surround herself with Christian white males as her first ministers, no matter what nation within her commonwealth they herald from.
    In our ever multi-culturing zing nations this seems somewhat an outdated approach to modern politicking. These positions should in actuality be available to all, men and women, all religions and non-religious people to.
    Multiculturalism requires compromise from all levels of society, this must include the state:- right to the highest office in the land. All citizens must feel that they to have equal opportunities to these positions or it could lead to unrest, a sense of unfairness were one would expect fairness to prevail.
    I am an atheist/agonistic and feel that one does not have to be a religious minded person to fill these positions, it just somehow has become a tradition in Canada, the United Kingdom and the rest of the Commonwealth.


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