Women and Gender Imbalance in Non-Religious Groups in Australia


This post was written by Katja Strehle


Introduction

It is no secret that the non-religious community has a gender imbalance. Not only are there more men self-identifying as non-religious than women, there are fewer women actively involved in the non-religious community. The research I am conducting for my PhD thesis focuses on the lived experiences of non-religious groups in Australia. One of the main aims of this research is to identify factors that prevent women from actively participating in the non-religious community. Using a local lens, I explore the dynamics of the volunteer groups I studied, their approach to attracting new membership, their strategies (or lack thereof) of being inclusive and what this mean for women’s participation.

            Worldwide, there is a statistical gender imbalance when it comes to religiosity and therefore non-religion. Data published by the PEW Research Centre in 2016 suggests that in 61 of 192 countries, women are at least 2 percentage points more likely than men to have a religious affiliation. In the remaining countries, women and men display roughly equal levels of religious affiliation. There are no countries in which men are more religiously affiliated than women by two percentage points or more.

Gender Inequality in Non-religious communities

In non-believing spaces, arguments against religion are often linked to the idea that sexism is caused and perpetuated by religious beliefs. Humanists and atheists repeatedly use gender-based discrimination and inequality in religion  as an argument against religion.  This suggests gender equality dominates non-believing spheres. However, my research found this is not the case.

            One prominent example of a gender-focused discussion within atheist circles was the event that became known as ‘Elevatorgate’. Briefly summarised, this term describes the backlash YouTuber Rebecca Watson received when she described an encounter after she presented a speech at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin in 2011. She details how a man approached her in an elevator at 4a.m. and asked her to join him in his room for a coffee. In her video, Watson expressed how this made her feel sexually objectified, and stated that men should not act in this manner.

            The video received numerous responses, some of which informed her that this was not sexism and she was overreacting. Her most prominent critic was Richard Dawkins — a well-known figure in the New Atheist movement. In his comment, Dawkins diminished Watson’s experience through using the oppression of women in Islam as a blueprint for true sexism. This incident, and the discussion which unfolded subsequently, are widely seen as a turning point for the non-religious movement, which, until then, was riding on a wave of popularity and growth, spurred by several authors’ bestselling books, unifying their agreement on the dangers of religion.

The Case of Australia

Non-Religion

In Australia, almost 30% of people self-identified as non-religious in the last census conducted in 2016.

            A newer report by the Rationalist Society, published in June 2021, found that a majority (62%) of Australians say they do not belong to a religious organisation. This report canvassed questions about religion in the Australian National University’s Australian election study, surveys of social studies, and values study. The Guardian reports on research by the Rationalist Society which finds that – despite 60% of Australians indicating an affiliation with a religion in the 2016 census – religiosity is much lower when Australians are asked if they “belong” to a religious organisation or religion is “personally important” to them. Moreover, only 15% of Australians say they are active members of a religious organisation.

            But what do these numbers mean? According to Andrew Singleton (2015)

For the overwhelming majority of Australians who do not affiliate with a religion, religious practice and belief has little to no place or salience in their personal lives. Simply, there is a deep congruence with this identification and other ways of being non-religious (p.242).

            There is a wide range of Non-religious groups and organisations in Australia, at least on paper. There are several established humanist groups, present in major cities throughout Australia. In 2020 a new national humanist organisation launched whose mission statement aims to not only bring humanism to the forefront of Australian society, but to also actively support people persecuted as a result of their humanist beliefs, both in Australia and overseas,  and to advocate for social justice matters.

            The Atheist Foundation of Australia is perhaps the most well-known atheist organisation, as they have organised and hosted two successful atheist conventions in 2010 and 2012. Several atheist meetup groups having regular meetings but are loosely organised and not officially affiliated with the Foundation.

Gender Inequality

‘The gender gap is the difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes.’ According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018), the national gender pay gap is 13.4%. Women receive 37% less superannuation and earn less wages overall than men, fewer women are in the labour force than men, it is more likely for women to work in part-time and casual employment, and to be underemployed than men. Australia is far off being a country where gender equality on a societal level has been achieved or is even close to be achieved.

            Unfortunately, as with the overall membership numbers, there is no official data regarding gender distribution within the groups I studied.

Preliminary Findings

My research focuses on the lived experience of women in the non-religious community in Australia.

            My thesis will fill a gap in contemporary literature on gender in the non-religious community. In my research, I conducted 31 interviews with women who are or have been involved with atheist or humanist groups in the country. Most of them are Caucasian and over 50 years of age, which supports studies focusing on the composition of non-religious groups.

            One focus of the conversations was on the lived experience of the participants within these groups. Some stories spoke of implicit misogyny, self-monitoring and structural challenges that enable misogynistic behaviour. These behaviours often contributed to the women not actively participate in the non-religious community

Sylvie recounted her experience as follows:

             I feel like it there is an onus on me … to prove f that I can engage on the same level […]. And definitely a lot of mansplaining type of thing, you know … people would. I feel like people over-explain things to me because they assume I wouldn’t know. … I am generally a reasonably confident person, so I do not feel put down by it, but I do feel like I have to proof myself to be taken seriously.

            Generally, the fact that the groups consist of mainly older white men from a middle- and upper-class background creates and exclusive environment which is unattractive to women and younger people. This is most visible when it comes to the choice of activities and presentation topics and main membership demographic heavily centred around traditional male interests.

As Mila put it:

            ‘I think they [older white men] are quite often the founders. So, there have been involved in that organisation for a long time. And they pick the speakers and stuff. So, they obviously are given a lot more airtime in terms of introducing people and making jokes … being the coordinator of the night. I think it is just the fact that they have been there a long time […] I think they also have friends and co-member who are, like from their same social background quite often. So, there is a camaraderie there which is difficult to penetrate sometimes.’

            These in-group dynamics often create an invisible barrier and make women and people with a different demographic background feel like outsiders and unable to fit in. It silences diverse perspectives and new ideas.

            In order to stay relevant within Australian society, non-religious groups need to be flexible, more open, adopt modern communication styles, and actively work towards being attractive to a greater diversity of people.


References

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census Data on Religion in Australia, 2016, Link, viewed 5 June 2019.

Francis, F 2021, Religiosity in Australia, Rationalist Society of Australia, Melbourne.

Harris, B 2017, What is the gender gap (and why is it getting wider)? World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/11/the-gender-gap-actually-got-worse-in-2017/ viewed 02.05.2020

Karp, P 2021, Australians are very sceptical’: Michael Kirby warns against ‘excessive protection’ of religious freedoms, The Guardian, 11. June, viewed 01. November 2021,

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/11/australians-are-very-skeptical-michael-kirby-warns-against-excessive-protection-of-religious-freedoms

Singleton. A 2015 Are religious ‘nones’ secular? The case of the nones in Australia, Journal of Beliefs & Values, 2015, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 239–243.


Katja is a PhD candidate in Sociology within the Religion and Society Research Cluster, at Western Sydney University, Australia. She has done her Magister (Master equivalent) degree in Contemporary History, Political Science and Anthropology of the Americas at the Free University Berlin, Germany. Her current research focuses on gender relations in atheist and humanist groups in Australia. Using qualitative data collection, she investigates the lived experiences of women in atheist and humanist groups. Katja is interested in learning about how gender relations within the groups are perceived by atheist and/or humanist women and how they negotiate their role. Additionally, she looks into diversity in the non-religious community in Australia.

Her publication “From Buses to Billboards: The Atheist Bus Campaign in New Zealand” in The Atheist Bus Campaign (2016) is co-written with Dr. Will Hoverd, Massey University. Based on primary data drawn from face-to-face semi-structured interviews, this chapter chronicles the development and eventual cessation of the New Zealand atheist bus campaign and sets that atheist bus narrative into the broader New Zealand landscape of religion and no-religion.

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