For women, mistreatment at secular events linked to problematic groups

In recent weeks the topic of sexual harassment and predatory behavior at freethought conferences has been addressed repeatedly by bloggers in the freethought community. They write that the problem is widespread, that certain movement leaders and renowned speakers are famous backstage as repeat offenders to be avoided by women in the know, and that victims avoid "naming and shaming" because they've witnessed at least one vocal woman's career wounded by the weapon of reactionary male entitlement.

Regrettably, this is not the first or even the second explosion of controversy about gender relations within the organized secular movement. Traditionally, atheist and humanist organizations are predominantly male, so the question of how to appeal to more women is a familiar one in the boardroom. But the parallel discussion that takes place in the secular women's underground isn't about the need for child care or different programs. It's about predatory men, impenetrable good ole boy networks, and "disguised discrimination" that hides behind publicly acceptable (but disingenuous) justifications for decisions that bolster men in these organizations.

The American Secular Census collects data about registrants' experiences in both religious and secular organizations. We were curious how women's responses about negative experiences in the secular movement might compare with the responses of the entire registry. Do women sense more discrimination and, if so, what form does it take? Are women who sense discrimination more likely to view the group itself, rather than the individuals involved, as a problem? Can we quantify these attitudes on some level?

What follows is our first analysis correlating a demographic field (gender) with responses and viewpoints in another area of the Census.


  • Women are 26% more likely to feel unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement.
  • Participants get the most blame from women for problematic behavior and unwanted advances. Still, unwanted advances by group leaders and employees are claimed by more than 15% of the women who indicate they've had negative experiences.
  • When asked about the disadvantages of participating in secular organizations, "problems within the group itself" are cited 157% more often by women than overall.

In keeping with our culture of privacy, the information below was calculated from values queried directly from database tables which do not contain visible identifying information such as name, username, or e-mail address.

  • Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement?
  • Responding Yes:
    11.4% - Overall
    14.4% - Women

  • Which of these factors contributed to this experience?* (Multiple responses permitted.)
  • 77% - Words, actions, or attitudes of other participants
    46% - Words, actions, or attitudes of organizers, leaders, or employees
    23% - Unwanted advances by other participants
    15.4% - Unwanted advances by organizers, leaders, or employees
    15.4% - Programs or positions of the organization itself
    8% - Choice of activity or venue

    *Responses of women who answered Yes to the first question.

  • What disadvantages have you personally experienced from your involvement in the secular movement? (Multiple responses permitted.)
  • Responding Problems within the group itself:
    35% - Overall
    55% - Women

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