This is a guest post by frequent commenter Claudia.
Yes, I know the prospect of yet another post on sexism within the atheist community, along with its accompanying civil and productive comments thread, fills you with joy and enthusiasm. So prepare to rejoice!
In a previous post, Hemant mentioned women being frequently “propositioned for sex” within the movement. Of course, it was a part of a much larger point of women feeling devalued, or valued exclusively as sexual objects, while having their ideas disregarded. No matter, as reliably as ever, the general was discarded in favor of the specific, and a very long dissection of “propositioning” ensued.
However besides the inevitable individuals who will never admit that women are not asking for “special treatment,” or that there is even the possibility that their assumptions of what women should feel are wrong, I did see genuine confusion over an honest question: Is approaching a woman you’re interested in at a conference/meet-up by itself a sexist act?
I can’t speak for all women, of course, but I’m pretty sure I speak for at least some when I say that it’s a matter of accumulation.
Being propositioned (which can range from flattering to deeply creepy/frightening, depending on the approach) or flirted with at a conference will not make most women feel devalued. Being propositioned several times, or feeling like most men only approach you for the purpose of getting in your pants, can.
Likewise, having an idea of yours not taken seriously can offend you, but you’re not necessarily going to make the jump and assume your gender has anything to do with it. However, if you see that guys expressing similar ideas are taken seriously, and/or you observe or hear from other women who frequently feel dismissed, the pattern can hurt.
Assuming you care about the comfort of the person you are speaking to, keeping that in mind when interacting with others can be enormously helpful. So can understanding that an atmosphere is not made up of an individual action or word, but an accumulation of experiences, big and small, that can make you feel at ease and welcomed, or the opposite. That makes solving the problem harder of course, but I still think it’s worth trying.