Science, Atheism and Gender

Science and atheism often go hand in hand. Many of the UK’s most famous atheists are also scientists, from Dawkins to Cox to Al Khalili. Unfortunately British atheism also shares some of the problems of British science and not least of these is gender representation. The blunt truth is that science and atheism are both dominated by men.

There was a mini-Twitter storm this week about an upcoming science event in London, “Consensus”, an event we’ve been helping to publicise and at which I’ll be volunteering. The event looks ridiculously cool with Richard Dawkins and Bill Bailey, among others, sharing a stage to talk about science- an inspired and original combination. Less original is the gender makeup of the panel- all 6 speakers are men. But where the organisers really messed up was in the FAQs for the event, in which they addressed the lack of women. Here’s a screenshot-


To say the least, these comments aren’t helpful. It’s one thing to organise an event with only male speakers, which may not reflect a problem with the organisers so much as with science at large, but quite another to label those who simple raise the gender issue as “fanatical and misandristic” with “bigoted” opinions. Yes, this was meant to be comically over the top language, in keeping with the rest of the FAQ’s, but even going past the use of language the message remains “put up and shut up”. This is the absolute last thing we shoould say about gender imbalance.

The idea that there could be at least one woman speaker out of 6 isn’t absurd. There don’t seem to be data for the whole UK but at my own university, Imperial College London, around 20% of researchers are women. This makes the odds of, at random, picking a male speaker to be 0.8 which is pretty high. But the odds of picking 6 male speakers at random are 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8 = 0.26; in other words we would expect only 26% of panels to be all male. All things being equal, we are quite justified in wondering why at least one woman isn’t on the panel. This is a institutional issue and not simply the fault of one event in London but for them to brush it aside as a non-issue of interest only to fanatics serves to excuse the status quo.

This is an issue that matters to the AHS, not least because we are currently organising our 2014 convention. After our initial invitations went out to potential speakers, all 6 who said they could come were men. We didn’t mean this to happen and like the organisers of Consensus we had also contacted women who just couldn’t make it. But we aren’t just leaving it. We put out a call on Twitter and Facebook for recommendations of women speakers and have been flooded with dozens of suggestions. This is no “positive discrimination”; these are women who are perfect for our convention but for various reasons don’t have the same profile as their male counterparts. Their invitations went out this week; incidentally on the same day that attention was drawn to Consensus’ FAQ’s.

Consensus have since removed this part of their FAQ’s, without offering an explanation. Both science and atheism are increasingly in the public eye and gaining ground. Atheists cannot criticise the Church of England for banning women bishops as long our own “bishops”, our most prominent leaders, are almost all men. A deliberate effort needs to be made by event organisers if we are to be serious about increasing representation within our movements. These events send a message about who we are. The AHS will play its part.

AHS member? I want to know your thoughts on this- please drop me an email on president(at)


Secular Europe March 14th September

People should be treated equally when accessing public services. It’s mad that so simple a statement should need to be shouted and yet when it comes to religious privilege in the UK, that’s exactly what is needed. The truth is that for its many advances in other areas of human rights, the UK remains a country of deeply rooted and deeply divisive religious privilege and nowhere is this clearer than in our education system.

Christians enjoy unfair access to education in this country. Christian schools, primarily Catholic and Church of England, are empowered to direct state funds exclusively towards fellow believers and only have to give places to non-Christians if there are any left over. They are also permitted to discriminate in hiring staff, not just religious education teachers but in any subject. This would not be permitted in any other type of organisation, public or private, except, of course, in a church.

In our universities too we see the stain of religious privilege, with our own AHS societies often on its receiving end. The past year has seen a particularly high number of instances on British campuses with the last academic year kicking off with Pineapplegate, where Reading Atheists were forced to remove a pineapple named Mohammad from their Freshers Fayre stall by their union. The Reading society currently faces the threat of closure for refusing to sign their union’s behavioural policy, which includes a prohibition on causing offence.

On the other side of the coin we have seen the march of religious privilege continue unhindered as Bristol University’s Christian Union banned unmarried women from addressing their society, only allowing married women to speak in the presence of their husbands. Such policies should never be permitted in public institutions and yet we allow them to continue under the guise of “religious freedom”.

The status quo in universities continues to mean silencing statements for fear of harmless “offence” and doing nothing to prevent practices that deliberately harm oppressed groups. That this is the case is not because our universities are run by religious fundamentalists, it is because they know that religions will fight tooth and nail to protect their privileges, while the non-religious too often are not aware of where to turn when they see their rights denied.

This is one of the reasons behind the creation of the AHS; to be a national body that can represent students who find the tide of religious privilege washing over them. Universities need to know that when the rights of their non-religious students are ignored we will not remain silent. Universities need to know that when they allow religious groups on campus to use their names and facilities while discriminating against others they will be held accountable. Universities need to know that only a secular approach can provide equal opportunities on campus for all students. This is also why the AHS will be supporting and attending the Secular Europe Campaign March this Saturday 14th September.

This Saturday’s march is the first major secular event of the new term and academic year. It will be attended by many different secular groups from around the UK and is our chance to send a strong signal that there is a real appetite for secularism in the UK. It will take place at 2pm outside Downing St. with more info here. We want to see as many student faces there as possible. Spread the word!

See you there,