The Course of Reason

How to Make Your Student Group Appeal to Women

June 10, 2013

Events like Women in Secularism 2 were created, in part, to bring attention to the unique experiences faced by secular and freethinking women. However, even when students and group leaders become aware of these experiences, they sometimes still lack an understanding of how they can make a difference in their own groups.

We recently got a message from Rob Carman, a student leader in Santa Cruz, CA, who noticed how most of his group members are men. He wanted ideas for how to make his group appeal to women, and wondered if I'd gotten any ideas he could use at Women in Secularism 2.

About Women in Secularism 2, Rob said:

"It was probably the one conference all year I most wish I could have attended. I'm really interested in this sort of movement-within-a-movement with feminism inside skepticism. I personally think skeptical thinking implies feminism, but as we surely both know, many people don't agree, which is why the WiS conference seems so important and necessary. I've been having somewhat of a difficult time trying to generate intelligent discussions about related topics with my SSA group."

Sometimes, I think freethought leaders focus so much on convincing each other that feminism is an important and relevant issue, that we ignore the practical steps leaders can take to make change happen. Once we recognize diversity is important-and gender diversity isn't the only thing to include here-what steps can we suggest group leaders take to make change happen in their organizations?

Rob shared a few of the strategies he's tried:

"As is probably not surprising, our group is mostly male-dominated, and a couple members figuratively and literally attempt to talk over female members during our meetings. I think it's become enough of a problem that some of the women from our group have decided it's not worth coming anymore. I have had some conversations in private with these guys, but it hasn't seemed to stick. Aside from calling them out during meetings, I'm not sure what else to do. Obviously I want to avoid this for fear of losing even more members. So I guess what I was most wondering is if there were any talks/discussions that you heard at the conference about how to remedy these kinds of situations. I'm new to this student group leadership position, but I'd really like to accomplish what our mission statement is set out to do and create a welcoming community for ALL nonbelievers on campus. If you have time to offer any advice, I'd love to hear it." (Emphasis added.)

The ideas below come from my own experiences over the years, both as a student group leader myself and from working with other organizers. I don't claim to have all the answers to this giant and difficult question, so please, if you have other ideas to share, stick ‘em in the comments!

1. Moderate group discussions.
As Rob noted in his question, women tend to be interrupted more than men in meetings. For many groups, the core of their activities is weekly discussions about philosophy, science, religion, atheism, and other topics. Selecting a moderator for these discussions, or having meeting rules, could be a good way to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard-especially if group members have a habit of interrupting or talking over each other.

2. Hold women's-only events.
Last week, blogger Robby Bensinger wrote a great article about common objections to holding women's only events in secular student groups. He responded to these objections in a well-reasoned blog post.

3. Diversify the types of events you offer.
Certain event types tend to appeal to women-community service is a good example of this. Personal experience with my own group showed me that women tend to be more likely to show up for community service than philosophy discussions. That doesn't mean discussions about philosophy aren't interesting to women, however-and it's definitely important to be sure all events are accessible to all group members.

Activism related to women's issues, like advocacy for birth control and abortion access, could also be a way of recognizing the importance of issues commonly described as "women's issues," that are actually relevant to many people. Choosing discussion topics like "feminism and secularism" or "feminism and skepticism" could also be a way to reach a demographic that you've previously had trouble connecting with.

4. Partner with women's groups or feminist groups on your campus.
It is likely unsurprising that feminist groups tend to appeal to women. Partnering with these groups will show your group is open to the unique concerns of women.

One way to partner with feminist groups could be to sponsor a talk on how the religious right often stands in opposition to women's issues. You can find speakers on topics like this in the CFI Speakers Bureau:

If you do organize a public lecture like this, be sure to use it as a springboard to get women involved as members! Have an email list sign-up at the door and announce upcoming events in the introduction to the talk.

5. Offer family-friendly events, or childcare.
This may be more relevant to community groups than students, but not necessarily. College students may have families, and although society is changing, women are still more likely to be responsible for primary childcare. When secular groups make an effort to offer childcare services, events for kids, or family-friendly options, it makes the events more accessible to people with children. This can have the effect of making your group more welcoming to women. The Richard Dawkins Foundation is one organization that has provided child care grants in the past.

6. Listen.
Attend events like Women in Secularism, if you can. Watch talks (YouTube is a great place to start!) by skeptical and secular women talking about the experiences they've had. Read blog posts written by women in the movement. It's a great place to start, and to get a deeper understanding of what others' experiences are so that you can be a more inclusive, thoughtful, welcoming, and ultimately more effective leader. 

Heina Dadabhoy wrote a post on Skepchick about how not to appeal to women in 2011, but I wasn't able to find any similar articles on the same topic. If you know of any, please link us in the comments!


About the Author: Sarah Kaiser

Sarah Kaiser's photo

Sarah Kaiser is a field organizer for CFI On Campus. Prior to her work at CFI, she got her start in the freethought movement as the co-founder and president of the Secular Alliance at Indiana University, where she helped organize a nationally recognized atheist bus ad campaign and large campus speaking events. As an atheist, a feminist, and a small part of the universe's way of understanding itself, she is thrilled at the chance to help advance CFI's mission. On Twitter: @sarahebkaiser.




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