Women in Secularism, Affirmative Action, and “Lowering the Bar”

So there’s this conference. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s the Women in Secularism conference hosted by the Center for Inquiry (CFI); the second one happened in May of this year in Washington, DC.

There’s been some controversy surrounding the conference, most notably with the opening talk given by CFI’s CEO Ron Lindsay. It’s an important elephant in the room, and I don’t want to ignore it—but it’s not what I want to get into here. (If for no other reason, events are still unfolding, and I don’t know where they’ll be by the time this piece comes out.)

Instead, I want to talk about the value of a secularist conference dedicated to women. Or to African-Americans. Or to blue-collar and working-class people. (I haven’t seen one of those last ones, and I’d sure like to!) Or to other marginalized groups. I want to talk about the value of going out of our way, when inviting speakers to a conference or group, to make sure that a good number of them are women, and people of color, and working-class/blue collar, and LGBT, and so on. And this isn’t just about speakers at conferences and local events. I’m talking about going out of our way to get marginalized people in positions of leadership in groups and organizations. I’m talking about going out of our way to include marginalized people when we talk about our history and the great leaders and thinkers from our past. I’m talking about going out of our way to get marginalized people to just show up at our local groups, and to stick around in our local groups … so some of them can rise up to become our next speakers, leaders, organizers, and thinkers.

And I want to talk about one of the most common complaints that we hear when special efforts are made to promote diversity—namely, that doing this is “lowering the bar,” that it will “dilute the talent pool.” That, if we go out of our way to diversify the speakers we listen to and the leaders we follow and the heroes from our past that we lionize, the quality will just naturally go down.

Yeah. See, here’s the thing. The Women in Secularism 2 conference was nothing short of amazing. Just about everyone who spoke was exceptional: they were thoughtful, intelligent, engaging, entertaining, heartbreakingly touching, hilariously funny. Just about everyone brought their A-game: speakers, moderators, organizers, even conference attendees. Even with the upsetting and distracting controversy, it was one of the best conferences I’ve been to. And I’ve been to a lot. (A huge shout-out also goes to CFI-DC’s executive director, Melody Hensley, for pulling this speaker lineup together.)

Amanda Marcotte’s talk on the rationality of feminism was that rare combination of rigorously logical and hilariously engaging. Desiree Schell has more knowledge about organizing in her little finger than most of us have in our entire brain. Sarah Moglia had scalpel-sharp insights on how sexist mistreatment of women by the medical establishment could possibly, just possibly, be a factor in why alternative or crackpot medicine is so attractive to so many women. Ophelia Benson has a quiet authority underlying an encyclopedic knowledge and a bearlike passion for justice. Soraya Chemaly is personable and delightful to listen to, with a mind like a whip. Katha Pollitt is an engaging and down-to-earth speaker who makes complicated ideas clear without talking down to her audience—and she’s hilarious. (I dearly wish Christopher Hitchens were alive, and had attended this conference, so he could see how funny women are.) And Rebecca Goldstein’s ideas about “mattering” were life-changingly brilliant. Throughout the weekend, I kept asking people at the conference who their favorite speaker was, and almost everyone named Goldstein. Or rather, since so many people weren’t familiar with Goldstein and hadn’t heard her speak before, they said, “The last speaker on Friday before the reception. The one who spoke about mattering. She was amazing.”

Which brings me to my point.

Why haven’t more people in the secular movement heard Rebecca Goldstein before? Or even heard of her? And it’s not just Goldstein. So many of the amazing women who spoke at Women in Secularism are people I haven’t seen before at humanist/atheist/skeptical/secular conferences. Or people I haven’t seen very much.


Honestly, I’m happy to keep getting invited to speak at conferences. But it’s okay to stop inviting me back so often. It’s okay to scale back on re-inviting the other core group of women who frequently speak at conferences again and again and to start inviting some of these other women. They rock.

Which brings me back to the notion that opened this essay: the complaint that making an effort to get more women in our movement is “lowering the bar.” What on earth makes people think that the smartest, funniest, most insightful, most engaging, most talented speakers around will always be white, middle-class, college-educated men?

What makes people think that going out of our way to expand our reach beyond the same white, middle-class, college-educated men we typically look to will automatically mean “lowering the bar” or “diluting the talent pool”?

Here’s the thing. Unconscious bias—unconscious sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and so on—is a well-documented phenomenon. It’s not controversial. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person: we all have it, it’s what we’ve been taught by the world and about the world, pretty much from birth. We all have an unconscious tendency to think that men, white people, and middle-class people are more talented, more authoritative, smarter.

But that doesn’t make it true.

We all have blinders on that make it harder to see talent among marginalized people. That’s one of the things that being “marginalized” means—you’re in the margins. You’re not in the immediate line of sight. But when we make an effort to take those blinders off, what do we see?

An untapped pool of talent.

When major league baseball began racial integration, the bar for talent wasn’t lowered. It was raised. And it was raised dramatically. Extraordinary players from the Negro Leagues were suddenly in the mix—and the quality of play went up. This works the same way.

There are plenty of reasons to make a special effort to bring more diversity to our communities. Diversity, in itself, brings value. It makes our communities truly welcoming to all nonbelievers. It brings new ideas to the table. It multiplies our ability to make alliances with other progressive political movements. It brings a broader range of ideas and viewpoints to the public debate. It decreases our unconscious biases. It helps keep bad habits and vicious circles of unintentional exclusion from getting ingrained. It challenges our ways of thinking—as humanists, we’re supposed to want that. And if we want to increase our political power, we need to increase our numbers, which will only happen when our groups expand out from that narrow demographic. And we’re only going to expand out of that demographic if we put people from outside that demographic front and center, as organizers and leaders and icons.

But one of the best reasons to make a special effort to make our communities more diverse? It raises the bar. It brings in high-quality speakers, thinkers, organizers, historical icons, who we might never have heard of otherwise.

Going out of your way to look for talented women doesn’t dilute the talent pool. It intensifies it.

And dedicated events like the Women in Secularism conference are a first-rate way to bring this untapped talent pool to the forefront.