Richard Dawkins, check the evidence on the ‘chilly climate’ for women

Posted on 26 July 2011


As a fellow rational thinker I must take Dawkins to task for a lack of empathy in the ‘elevatorgate’ debate over unwanted flirtation

Emily Band, Sunday 24 July 2011

Faye Banks, young woman engineer of 2004. Research suggests women graduates dislike the culture of the profession. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

 A few weeks ago, blogger and founder Rebecca Watson publicly expressed discomfort after an unwanted flirtatious advance was made towards her in an elevator at 4am, just a few hours after she had been talking about this very subject at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin. The brutal reactions from some members of the Skeptic and scientific community that followed are now known as “Elevatorgate”, and they have highlighted a remarkable disregard for evidence and lack of empathy towards women. Richard Dawkins himself took part and made sarcastic comments to belittle the feelings of unpleasantness felt by Watson (“Stop whining, will you”).

I usually have a great deal of respect for Dawkins’s ideas but I strongly disagree with his stance on this issue. Being drunkenly flirted with by an intoxicated man in a lift at 4am can make someone feel intimidated even if no physical contact is made. I’ve had similar experiences while waiting at bus stops after dark. The freedom to escape is there, as Dawkins points out, but the verbal exchange alone can still make some of us feel unsettled and shaken – not to mention the fact that many of us have experienced being followed home. This effect is amplified within a confined space with no other people present.

As Dawkins has conceded in a later reply, highlighting a problem on a larger scale, as he did when comparing Watson’s complaint to the hardships encountered by women in some developing countries, does not erase the damage caused by a smaller problem. His dismissal of Watson’s concerns further contributes to the problem of alienation felt by some women within the Skeptic community – something we should be collectively working to combat rather than develop.

A feeling of inadequacy in male-dominated environments is a well-documented phenomenon and has been termed as a “chilly climate”, which can be caused by a whole host of subtle mannerisms, ranging from expecting a lower standard of work from women to making light of unwanted sexual flirtatious advances.

The minor slights that create such an atmosphere do have a notable effect on women: a study of female engineers by Romila Singh of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provides evidence to support the idea that sexism in the workplace can have negative effects on employees. Of the 560 women who never entered an engineering career after earning their undergraduate degree, 21% cited a dislike of the culture surrounding the career path.

This culture of subtle sexism can be altered when people have their attention drawn to it. Bernice Sandler observed this during a policy meeting in the 1970s, where the few women who were in the room were interrupted three times more often than the men. When she presented her findings to her male colleagues, they dismissed it. However, the next day the women were not interrupted so often during the meeting.

Creating a widespread change in attitudes is not an easy task: as sexist attitudes do seem to form at a young age. I remember as a child clumsily running through the grass, Game Boy in hand, eager to play the popular new Pokémon game with a group of friends – it was the late 90s, and the craze had just started to sweep through the UK. But when I got there none of the boys wanted to have anything to do with me: “Don’t be stupid, girls can’t play Pokémon.” It’s a well-known fact that seven-year-olds are notoriously resistant to reasoning, and I should have been able to dismiss this sexism as a series of petty childhood squabbles that have no relevance in adult life. Unfortunately this is not the case – these attitudes carry on adulthood.

I have noticed these attitudes from co-workers, managers and customers in my recent job, which was in a technical support department. People there rarely displayed overt misogyny but instead seemed to make a habit of a more insidious type of sexism, such as dismissing a solution proposed by me but enthusiastically agreeing with the exact same plan when suggested by a male colleague, or patting me on the head when I fixed an item. I know I have the ability and intelligence to succeed at technical tasks, but being patronised because I lack a Y chromosome had a negative impact on my confidence.

As a fellow rational thinker and an aspiring physicist, I ask Richard Dawkins and other influential figures within male-dominated fields to observe the evidence and help dispel this chilly climate, asserting our status as equals. We are not a novelty or a sideshow; we are women who share a common interest with the men in lecture halls, laboratories and conventions. It should be in everyone’s best interests to create a welcoming atmosphere rather than to promote an air of hostility and alienation.