Women at TAM: I think what you meant to say was…

The sphere is all abuzz with DJ Grothe’s complaints about how all the attention on sexual harassment at atheist and skeptic conferences may be discouraging women from attending. If, somehow, you’ve missed it, here’s the offending comment, from facebook:

Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.)

I have to say, I find this more funny than upsetting. Maybe it’s outrage fatigue… but it’s just becoming comical to me that, after all the conversations we’ve had in this community around this issue, somebody who (I do believe) is sincerely on the side of increasing women’s voices and women’s presence in the community could say something this obtuse. Somehow he’s missed the part where women who are subject to harassment often fear that they won’t receive institutional support if they report it. He’s missed the part where multiple reports of harassment and abuse are passed around as backchannel warnings between women, because they believe (justifiably, in my opinion) that the prominent status of the abusers would mean that a public report would do much more damage to the reporter than to the perpetrator. Saying “we haven’t had any reports of harassment” is like… well, it’s like saying “I’ve never seen a monkey turn into a human, so I don’t believe in evolution.” That objection just proves you weren’t listening in the first place. Saying that harassment occurs has only been half of the point of most bloggers I’ve read writing about this: the other, far more urgent half, is that women on the receiving end of harassment often don’t feel safe reporting it. And Grothe’s comment has only exacerbated the latter problem.

While I think Grothe is probably correct that part of the attrition of women at this year’s conference is due to the conversations we’ve been having around harassment, here’s the response that would have made it better instead of worse:

“I’m afraid a lot of women are avoiding attending TAM due to fears of harassment. While I’m not aware of any incidents at the last two TAMs, I want to assure all our attendees that we take the problem of harassment seriously, and that we’ve put the following policies in place to ensure the safety of our attendees: [insert policies here]. I encourage anyone on the receiving end of harassment to submit a written report to JREF, so that we’re better able to track this problem and address it.”

It can be less PR-speaky (I hope it is!), but that’s the essence of the message any conference organizer should be putting out in response to the harassment buzz, and possibly-related attrition in women’s attendance. Convince us your meeting is safe by showing us what you’re doing to make it safe, not by claiming that it was never unsafe in the first place. That cat is already out of the bag.