Presenting Women — At The Global Atheist Convention!

As I write this, I’m still kind of buzzing. Or maybe it’s the cold I picked up on the flight back home to Perth, three hours away from the Melbourne Convention Centre. Maybe it’s due to watching myself reacting on stage to Professor Richard Dawkins as he’s asked about Mary McKillop — am I always that animated? Sheesh…

Either way, I think I was certainly part of something very big that happened this weekend for a number of different reasons, and this is just the start of something bigger with the community (not-​​so-​​holy) spirit I observed, even as I squinted in the glare of the stage lights.

Those who follow the ‘atheist-​​blog-​​scene’ would be aware that representation of women in atheism has been a topic for discussion for some time — PZ Myers, Greta Christina and Jen McCreight for example, all blogged back in February.

‘Where are all the women in atheism? Why aren’t there more on conference and convention stages? How can I support them? Are organisers thinking of minorities in general, let alone women, when selecting who should present?’ and so on.

I made a point that skepticism does not imply atheism (and vice versa — ‘The Problem Of The Oblivious White Male Skeptic? A Response To Pharyngula And SkeptiFem’) and if you attended my presentation at the Global Atheist Convention, you would have seen some data in that regard.

Firstly — the women’s panel at the GAC raised the idea of a ‘No Chicks, No Excuse’ Speakers Bureau — I had a similar idea earlier in the year after attending Dragon*Con. Thanks to the Grassroots Skeptics, the Speakers Bureau for skeptics can be found here:

Speakers Bureau Sign-​​Up Form — Grassroots Skeptics is a volunteer organisation that promotes critical thinking and a reason-​​centered worldview by helping local skeptics groups to share tools, information and strategies, and connect with skeptical individuals and activists both locally and globally.

So, it was that I was thinking of when I had a brief conversation about ‘tokenism’ (hell, I have a show called ‘Token Skeptic’, so it’s not as if I don’t know about the attitudes!) with one of the female presenters who featured in the one-​​hour session during the Saturday night dinner.

I would argue, much like she did, that more diversity overall is needed and to have a women’s panel is at least a ‘gesture’ in the right direction. More can and should be done. Do note — there are certain to be factors that the convention organisers have to consider that we as humble presenters and audience members may not be privy to, so communication in that regard is valuable too. I recall the funding issue for the GAC, which is elaborated over at the ABC Radio National Blog, by David Nicholls: “More on that sore point”

But there’s also the issue of people’s profiles being better known, people’s contributions being promoted and encouraging the skills of all minorities out there so they can feel both confident and supported enough to take to the stage. (e.g.: who on earth knew who I was beyond a few lovely, internet-​​keen podcast listeners?) Certainly the media is quite understandably writing exclusively about Stuart Bechman’s fantastic role as an MC, and he has a great and impressive profile as an atheist and president in comparison to me.

It’s one thing to rally for ‘We need more X out there!’ — and quite another to be additionally encouraging and understanding if they’ve never done it before or are still working on their presentation skills so they can make for a good show.

I’ve seen for myself how all it takes is a few nasty, unsupported, and non-​​constructive criticisms to a new speaker can completely destroy a burgeoning career as a presenter. ‘Got a problem with how I present? Back it up with evidence why — or shut up and show me if you have half the guts to try it yourself’.

I’ve heard (possibly anecdotally?) that some people consider public-​​speaking to be the last thing they’d sign up for, and so we should factor that in with all the other factors like ‘work /​ family /​ travel’ that people often muse about in regards to what might prevent a woman, a member of a cultural minority, et al., from presenting.

I went to classes to learn and improve my presentation skills months ahead of time before doing the MC role, for example. Being on a stage is not the same as being in control of a class of teenagers (no matter what criticism you have of audience members who can’t distinguish between ‘statement’ and ‘question’!) I had to work out that my new job would be able to handle my absence and (as I now have a nasty cold!) had to factor in what it might do to my well-​​being — I’ve over-​​committed myself to things in the past like my studies and that adversely influenced my health. I also had to factor in issues involving my family and the cost. Not unusual for anyone, I should imagine, regardless whether they’re male or female.

The ‘professionals’ we see on the circuit again and again are more often than not very well-​​trained or perhaps have had exposure to good models that make them the first we sign up to conferences. Helping people to be good presenters, to learn how to promote their research, to help take their stories and experiences and make them riveting presentations like those by Taslima Nasrin and the women on the panel, is something that has to be considered. Mentorship is another factor that we could take into account. I don’t know if people noticed that I was checking out Prof. Richard Dawkins notes while he was on the stage, taking mental notes on how he structured his presentation!

I’ve mentioned this several times in the past — and interviewed people in that regard — Science Communication is a discipline that has degrees dedicated to it for a reason. People study its impact and how it can be done effectively. Much like media outreach, there are skills to be learned and audience dynamics and appeal to consider. Being responsible for one’s presentation includes reflecting and improving — every actor, comedian, dancer would mostly likely say the same. Rehearsal, rewriting, reviewing — why shouldn’t a presenter on atheism be exempt? I saw for myself backstage a variety of techniques being used, from reviewing notes, rehearsing to the wall, to vocal exercises and relaxation techniques.

You’d be surprised to know from a variety of conferences I’ve attended how some of the most confident-​​seeming, media-​​savvy people have shyly gone into shut-​​down mode after a presentation just to gather their thoughts and deal with the adrenalin hit! ‘But they’re so quiet after? They were on fire on stage! Are they ignoring me?’ — no, they’re trying to get back to planet earth after being on cloud nine in front of a thousand-​​plus eyes and thinking of a billion-​​plus errors they think they made!

I’ve seen the likes of skeptical activist Loretta Marron improve by leaps and bounds over several years of seeing her present on the stage — and I’m aware that I pared down my presentation even further after reading Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work, which was recommended by Bora of Science Blogs. That’s not the only text out there, of course, and even watching TED talks can be of use when thinking ‘what would I like to see if I was in the audience, watching me talk about this topic? Is this an academic crowd, or a mixed group of people? Can I assume everyone is a skeptically-​​minded person like myself?’

Did you notice anyone else at the convention openly call themselves a ‘skeptic’ on the stage? I know of a few who are — Robyn Williams is known as a great science communicator and the brilliant Sue-​​Ann Post said she’s read my work and would be willing to write for the Australian Skeptic (and she better do!). But I was the ‘token skeptic’ out there who presented on something different to the others. I talked of my research, talked of future directions.

I wasn’t there to elaborate on the philosophy, to rally people like some of the others did. But I hope I did get a message across that it’s not really as simple as it seems to pigeon-​​hole people as ‘believers’ and ‘non-​​believers’. I think that it’s within us all to be the pre-​​and-​​post Dan Barker, acting with one belief for much of one’s life and then changing your world-​​view over time.

Dan Barker spent years preaching, to hundreds of thousands of people, invaluable on-​​the-​​job-​​training. Just think, if all people who wished to communicate important messages and help promote rationalism had similar training to many of the charismatic religious leaders out there, with support, funding, training and research into how to reach the masses — what we could do?

Even if the influence of role-​​models isn’t as cut-​​and-​​dried as you may very well think (as discussed by Michael McRae — Episode Nine — On Skepticism And Communication) — having a growth in number of successful communicators in general cannot be a bad thing, if they’re doing it to promote rationalism.

Have a plan in mind. Presenting at this conference was one of mine and I prepared for it. Let’s help others do the same if you want more interesting people —  male, female, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Aboriginal, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, rural and remote areas, inner-​​city, suburban or a million other permutations and orientations —  to get their message across well.

Big thanks to www​.arekphotography​.com for the picture of me on the stage!

Kylie Sturgess was the co-​​MC and presenter of ‘Sex and Skepticism: a Study of Belief in Australian Women’ at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention