The Skeptical Boys Club

The Worldwide Skeptical MovementTM,1 has found itself in the unenviable position of one of Van Wilder‘s2 clients, namely asking, “How do we get ladies to come to our events?”3. Fortunately, The Worldwide Skeptical MovementTM seems to be asking for more serious reasons than the Lambda Omega Omegas. Unless you are the Augusta Country Club, you want your group demographics to mirror those of the society within which your group is embedded. Among many other benefits, this shows that your message is successfully reaching the entire society, not just a specific niche.

This is what is known in the business as “hard”.

The Worldwide Skeptical MovementTM does not look like the larger society. It does look a lot like many IT departments – i.e., white and male. For the purposes of this brain effluvia to which I am subjecting you, we are going to focus on the under-representation of women4. Although the Skeptical Oligarchs have begun to realize that this may be an issue for their plans to be “Worldwide” and a “Movement” of lasting import, understanding this problem has not moved beyond the anecdotal.

I like numbers, and not just because I am uncomfortable with my own emotions. In this case, I like numbers for four reasons. First, measuring the problem demonstrates clearly that you are aware of the issue and signals that you want to correct it. Second, numbers tell you how big the problem is. Third, numbers give you a way to determine whether attempted remedies are making things better, worse, or doing nothing. Fourth, they let you evaluate the approaches of different groups through a single, shared criteria.

Without doing The Worldwide Skeptical MovementTM‘s job for them, I though I might take a cursory look. But, where to get data, if no one is collecting data on Skeptical demographics?


I figured, hey, if the big corporations can buy your privacy from Facebook, I might as well get in on the action too. A number of Skeptics in the Pub (SITP) groups5 organize through Facebook. In order to evaluate whether and/or how much women are under-represented SITP groups, we need to establish the background level of representation in the larger society. In this case, the larger society is Facebook. What is the representation of women of drinking age (these events are occurring in pubs, after all) on Facebook? In the US, women represent 56% of Facebook members above the age of 187 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Gender Representation in Facebook Membership (Normalized to Number of Years in Each Bin)
Figure 2: Female representation in individual SITP groups

For my Skeptical data set, I looked at 17 SITP groups (out of 44 listed)
from the UK and US across a range from membership sizes (n=20-283) with
the requirement that the SITP chapter maintain a Facebook group page8. In total, I reviewed 1096 SITP members. While there were individuals who held memberships in multiple groups, I did not adjust for this minority group, mainly because if you want that kind of rigor, tell the leasing Skeptical organizations to get off their keisters and do it themselves. To the left, you can see a visually stunning pie-ish chart showing the representation of females in each SITP group (Figure 2). The relative size of each group is indicated by its position in the set of concentric circles, with the largest group on the outside (n=283) and the smallest group (n=20) on the inside (circumferences not to scale). The females are in orange. Obviously, that is not even close to 56%9.

Females represent 31% of SITP members. This relationship holds across all SITP group sizes (Figure 3). Female representation in these Skeptical organizations is just barely over half of what we would expect by chance (i.e., Facebook users just randomly choosing to join groups).

Figure 3: Relationship between group size and female represenation

That is pretty bad. Extremely bad. But, it gets worse. If we look at the group administrators10, a paltry 12% are female (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Proportion of each group that is female

SITP have only half the female members they should and, among those current members, only about a third of the female leaders. That’s how serious the problem is. I know misogynistic religious groups that have better numbers than this.

Maybe someone should do something about this? As i said above (before we launched into “lovely” Excel graphs), an excellent first step would be to quantify the problem. Is my quantification great? No. Does it have problems? Yes. But the real question is why is there nothing better than a postdoc spending a few hours browsing Facebook?

Hey, The Worldwide Skeptical MovementTM, show us you really care.

1: I think the trademark rights to this particular Skeptical Movement moniker belongs to the James Randi Educational Foundation. Cough, branding, cough, cough.
2: For those of you with a less prurient sense of humor (a condition known as basculus in ano), allow me to hesitantly recommend Will Smith romantic comedy vehicle Hitch. The movies share the same general plot, but Hitch omits penis enlarger jokes and comes free of the general stain of being a post-Christmas Vacation movie by National Lampoon.
3: I know. I know. You were expecting me to drop some line about solving the problem by having a sexy scientist (or engineer) like the rugbyologist attend, but that would be ridiculous. I can’t be everywhere, people. Geez.
4: I focused entirely on the demographic group of gender not because of its importance relative to other demographic categories like age and race for several reasons. First, while
gender identity is binary for most individuals and is less dependent on group identification. Second, gender can often be inferred rapidly from photo or name, speeding data
collection relative to the calculations necessary for age. Third, gender
identity is usually provided as public information.
5: I restricted my search to Facebook “groups” as the “Page/Likes” dynamic that is becoming more common may not represent actual participation rather than general support, and is much harder to tally.
6: I’m operating under the assumption that male/female/none choice on Facebook
represents the individual’s self-reported gender identity, not their
complement of chromosomes, which would be their sex.
7: I could not find a breakdown that demarcated at 21.
8: All data collection was based on group pages status on 5 May 2010.
9: Unless, perhaps, you are trying to develop a rule for the number of fingers that should be on the human hand.
10: Admittedly, Facebook group admins/officers may not reflect the true leadership structure of a SITP group. In addition, two groups were excluded from the leadership analysis (Orange County and Glasgow), because their admin policy clearly differed dramatically from other groups, leading to disproportionately large numbers of admins for each group and to these groups dominating the data set.

*This article was originally posted at Scientific Blogging. You can go there to see some discussion of this topic or visit me on Facebook for even more discusssion.

Author: Josh Witten

5 thoughts on “The Skeptical Boys Club”

  1. The Houston Skeptics don’t use the SitP moniker, although that’s pretty much how we operate. I started and run thus group, and I’m female (last time I checked). Our membership roster is roughly 40% female, going by the names the members use when signing up via Attendance ranges 10-50% females and seems to be dependent on the topic and location.

    I work in the energy business. TAM and the SitP are a chickfest compared to the rest of my life.

    1. My sampling was far from exhaustive or inclusive, mainly because I do this in my free time, which is pretty limited. I also tried to make abundantly clear throughout that this was not “high-quality” research. If JREF wants to pay me to do a first-rate job of it, then we can talk (although they should pay someone with subject matter expertise).

      Community level groups were the most easily accessible for data, but I think it is fair to say that they are the most serious about this issue, compared to the larger organizations. Most community group leaders are very concerned about diversity issues as a fundamental element of their group, as opposed to be a question of appearance. If we care about an issue, we should be collecting information on it.

      I think it is also key to mention that we should only expect local groups to have a goal of reflecting their local diversity. Which is another reason I focused on sex instead of race. Most communities (but not jobs) tend to be close to 50/50 on sex.

  2. We seem to get a pretty good mix of male/female attendees at Sheffield SitP with possibly a slight bias towards male. All of the organisers are male.

    Out of curiosity I had a look at the subscriber list for our events email (which may have different people to the Facebook members).

    59.2% of subscribers are male, 36.8% female. The other 4% I classed as undetermined as their names did not indicate which sex they were.

    So not quite 50/50 but then again should we expect 50/50? Would events held in different locations and at different times make a difference to the M/F split? Manchester skeptics and others are attempting to address this with Ladies Who Do Skepticism.

    1. I think you raise good questions. Whenever a community group’s demographics do not match your local community, you have to ask why that is happening. Some of those causes may be unavoidable, many may be unintentional. You can also ask if those differences are important to your group.

      The larger Skeptical Movement has said that diversity is important, but does not seem to be addressing this issue in the same thoughtful way that local, “grassroots” groups are. In that way, it is a shame that the SiTP data was all I could access at the time.

Leave a Reply to GeekGoddess Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: