Earlier this week, Christian Walters of the Atlanta Skeptics posted an article entitled "Spelling Diversityjf without JREF" on his blog The Man Version. Don't worry, the spelling of that headline is intentional, since Christian is a hilarious writer. In fact, the whole blog is funny, insightful, and worth a read.
In this article, Christian raises some thoughtful points about diversity in the skeptics community. His main thesis is that diversity is the responsibility more of local skeptical organizations than national and international ones like the JREF. It's a point well taken. Many people are first exposed to associating with like-minded skeptics by attending Skeptics in the Pub meetings or group discussions at their local science centers or schools. If someone is made to feel unwelcome by a lack of diversity at the local level, it makes sense that she or he would think twice about traveling to a big event like TAM for fear of encountering the same kind of homogeneous atmosphere.
But regardless, we at the JREF do take diversity seriously, and it's something we strive to achieve at our events. If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it's essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. And we think our programs are better if they draw on the talents of everyone, not just one segment of the population or another. There is always room for improvement, but here are some recent statistics to show the progress we've been making:
This year, 1,672 people attended TAM 9. Of the 1,593 who pre-registered, only 26 were Las Vegas locals. We had attendees from every U.S. state save Wyoming, Delaware, and Rhode Island. 13% of our attendees were from outside the U.S., and 4% were from outside North America. A whopping 52% were first-time attendees, which demonstrates TAM's phenomenal growth. We had almost doubled the attendees this year from just two years before.
Just over 40% of our registrants and half of our speakers were women. In fact, there was higher gender and racial diversity on our program than at any previous TAM. The high number of female participants seems to indicate that women feel welcome at TAM. And the diversity in our program isn't the result of any sort of quota system. We simply feel our program was the best we could assemble and reflects the diversity inherent in our community.
One other point Christian raises is that atheism and skepticism are often conflated, making religious people feel uncomfortable at TAM and other skeptical events. This is a controversial issue within the skeptical community, and there are many facets to the discussion that are beyond the scope of this post. But one fact is certain: the JREF is not an atheist organization. To be sure, we count many atheists among our allies, but our focus is on science advocacy and education. We regularly work with religious believers of many different stripes to further that cause as well.
If you have any thoughts about how the JREF and the skeptical community as a whole can work toward greater diversity, we would love to hear about it. Drop us a note in the comments below, or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be posting video of our diversity panel from TAM 9 soon, and I predict our president D.J. Grothe will blog about the topic in the days ahead.
And remember: despite what Christian would have you believe in his article, I have never been called "El Boomboom".