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Three Difficulties With Trying To Include Women
Worth doing, not like this
Recently, in the effective altruist community, there’s been some discussion of shifting norms in order to improve our terrible gender ratio (70/30 male/female). The issue is a perennial problem in a lot of communities, and well worth considering. However, I’d like to point out three mistakes that people often make when talking about inclusion, in the hopes that it will help both effective altruists and members of other groups.
Don’t Draft Women To Run The Inclusion Project
I get why people do this! I really do. Who other than a woman would know how best to make a space welcoming to women?
But many women are not good at the kinds of skills you need to run an inclusion project: people skills, assertiveness, understanding other people’s point of view. Even if they’re good at it, they might not want to. Some women would just like to retreat into their math caves and do math. The mere fact that someone uses she/her pronouns doesn’t mean that their viewpoints and preferred policies are representative or good.
Further, drafting women to be in charge of your inclusion project is sexist. Instead of treating women as individuals with individual levels of suitability to take charge of inclusion, you’re treating them as interchangeable representatives of The Universal Female Viewpoint. It comes off as saying that the only thing important about a woman is her gender. At the same time, figuring out how to make a space more welcoming and inclusive is the kind of people-centric “soft skills” work that women are often relegated to, even today. Assuming that women want to and should do female-gendered labor is not okay.
Feminists and Women Don’t Necessarily Want The Same Things
If you ask about how to make any movement or subculture more welcoming to a particular marginalized group, then the advocates for that particular marginalized group will speak up. The problem is that things that advocates want don’t necessarily line up with things that members of that marginalized group want.
This is hardly a problem that’s limited to feminism. For example, some people who claim to be advocating for disabled people suggest that people should change their language to be more inclusive of disabled people. However, keeping track of which words are taboo and which aren’t makes communication far more difficult for many people with language disabilities. In some cases, advocates may even suggest changing to language which is rejected by most disabled people, such as people-first language (“people with autism” instead of “autistic people”).
Similarly, think about transness. If you ask trans advocates how to be inclusive to trans people, they’ll give a lot of good advice: you should use people’s preferred pronouns and the gendered words they want to refer to them; your standards of professional dress should be the same for men and women; you shouldn’t let people ask about other people’s genitals unless there’s a medical purpose. However, they’ll also give a lot of advice which is… bad? For example, trans advocates might also say that you should carefully rewrite all your sentences to say “people with vaginas” instead of “women”, but most trans people don’t really care that much as long as you don’t misgender them. Similarly, trans advocates might advise that everyone goes around and gives their pronouns at the beginning of each meeting, because it isn’t necessarily visible whether someone is trans. However, among trans people in general, pronoun circles are controversial. Many closeted trans people feel dysphoric if they explicitly ask for the wrong pronouns; a lot of people zone out halfway through, don’t catch on that a nonbinary person has weird pronouns, and misgender them anyway.
However, this problem is particularly severe for women and feminism. Between a third and sixty percent of American women identify as feminists. At best, feminists speak for a bare majority of American women.
Feminists have a lot of excellent advice for making movements more inclusive to women; I’m not suggesting ignoring feminist contributions entirely. Women, like members of every other marginalized group, tend to feel like this group isn’t a place for them when everyone they see in the group is unlike them. Therefore, it’s important for panels to include women, podcasts to interview women, and link roundups or recommendation lists to include women. Further, organizers of male-dominated groups who would like more female participants would be well-advised to find two or three women who are collectively willing to commit to attending every meeting. That way, if a new woman arrives, she’ll see another woman and not an endless sea of male faces.
There are other good pieces of advice feminists have. For example, conferences, workplaces, and (where practical) hobby spaces should offer private rooms for breastfeeding and pumping. Organizations should offer generous maternity leave policies and strive to not penalize women for taking off time to be with their children. Harassment policies should exist and be enforced. Local group organizers should make it clear that they’re willing to hear complaints about borderline harassing behavior or behavior that might be making a big deal about nothing, because that helps them realize if a particular glaring incident is part of a pattern. Individuals should step in if someone is being harassed or bullied. For the love of God, do something about that thing where any conventionally attractive woman in a male-dominated space gets swarmed by six men hanging on her every word and conspicuously not hitting on her.1
But some feminist advice, while it might be justifiable on other axes, is not good at the task of making women feel more welcome. For example, most women of my acquaintance are not particularly interested in attending diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings. Most women (both in the Anglosphere and worldwide) believe that there are, on average, personality differences between men and women, and would not benefit from this opinion being rendered taboo. Many ways of “centering women’s voices” or causing women to contribute more in conversations can make many women feel uncomfortable or like they’re only being listened to because of their gender.
There is often specific unhelpful advice for specific groups. Investigating more charities related to women’s rights or reproductive rights is not necessarily going to make women in effective altruism feel more welcome. Many women want to play tabletop RPGs in worlds where sexism exists, perhaps because they want to fantasize about overcoming it or because it just feels inaccurate to have a world without sexism. Feminist theology doesn’t necessarily make women more interested in your religion. Feminist theology, investigating women’s rights charities, and banning sexism from your tabletop games may all be good policies on the merits, but they are not specifically going to attract women.
Again, I don’t mean to say that various forms of feminist advocacy are useless or a bad idea on the merits. Some of the policies I mentioned I support; others I think are misguided. But I don’t think they’re very good ways of making women feel more welcome.
The Bell Curves Problem
Unlike the first problem, the Bell Curves Problem primarily applies to gender. Other marginalized groups are either more similar than men and women are2 or are different in such an obvious way that the problem never comes up.3
There are, on average, small but real differences between men and women in personality and interests. As any trans person can attest, hormones have an effect on your personality. And differences in gender socialization between men and women have their own effects.
Let’s discuss a hypothetical difference where men are more likely to like purple than women. Let’s say the Cohen’s d is 0.5—that is, about 70% of men like purple more than the average woman. (This is a larger effect size than nearly all sexed/gendered personality differences.)
As you can see, at a Cohen’s d of 0.5, the bell curves overlap a lot.
Perhaps the interior decorators of your male-dominated community have decked every conference and meetup location in purple; every website has a purple background, and every logo is a lovely shade of violet. Some people have noticed that women are more likely to detest purple, and decided that to attract women you should change most of those purples to some nice greens instead.
The problem is that there are lots of women who like purple. If your community is All Purple All The Time, it’s going to have selected for women who are enthusiastically pro-purple and against women who want to vomit whenever they see a grape.
If you say “we should make our websites green in order to include women”, all the women in your community who like purple are going to go “what the heck? I’m a woman and I don’t want the website to be green. I hate green.” They may feel resentful that their interests, as the women who are actually present, are being shafted for the interests of purely hypothetical women. In some cases, women may feel misgendered: “you said that women hate purple, but I don’t hate purple—are you saying I’m not really a woman?”4 In other cases, women may feel like their safe space is being yanked away from them. If it's stigmatized for women to like purple, if they were bullied in school for their purple shirt and their mom concern-trolled about wouldn't they really like green instead and they were forced to sit in glaringly ugly rooms because you’re a woman all women like green, and now they’ve found a space where they can be a woman and like purple—well, a lot of women are going to be unhappy if you pull the rug out from under them and claim it’s for their own good.
All right. Away from the silly hypothetical and back to the part where people yell at me. Girls are usually more interested in makeup than boys are, but girls who love science may be displeased by your “learn chemistry by mixing your own makeup!” event. Women (on average) tend to be more conflict-averse and less aggressive than men, but blunt women who love a good argument will hate a proposal that they should be more inclusive of women by phrasing disagreement in a more conciliatory way. For that matter, the gentle, shy man who found a haven at his local crocheting group will dislike the proposal that the group should contain more male banter.
What is the solution? If you’re making a claim about inclusion that hinges on women and men having different personalities and interests:
Double-check that your claim is actually true and not a totally false stereotype. Even a brief skim of Wikipedia is better than nothing.
Phrase your statements carefully to avoid erasing unusual women. Use “many” and “often” liberally. Consider explicitly including a disclaimer at the beginning that you know this doesn’t describe many women in the community.
Be particularly sensitive if you’re talking about gender-non-conforming behavior that people may have experienced stigma about, including communication style, interests, and dress style.
Don’t assume that no women benefit from the norms as they are, or that transition to a new set of norms would be costless.
For the love of God, if your claim boils down to “women don’t have autism”, say something else.
Some organizers I know have had success with a norm of not hitting on people at meetups.
Although it’s fun to imagine someone trying to be inclusive to lesbians by making their meetups have more astrology and yuri anime.
You’re not going to have a problem where a bunch of wheelchair users are offended by you putting in a ramp because the stairs work for their wheelchairs fine.
Remember, lots of cis people have gender identities, and misgendering is painful to them too.