I went to brunch at Hickory Street Bar and Grille with friends from the Atheist Community of Austin and Center for Inquiry last Sunday. One of my table neighbors was from Sweden. He pointed out the glaring gender imbalance in the room. Out of 25 people at brunch, only 3 were women. He asked me if I had thoughts why there are so few women at atheist events in the U.S. In Sweden, he said, the balance was much closer to 50%/50%.
In my opinion -- and this is really just my personal opinion, for which I know I'm going to catch flak -- it has to do with the tone of discourse at atheist meetings. Freethought communities tend to attract people with radical socio-economic views, that are also quite loud about expressing those views. It takes only a few of such personalities to set a confrontational, even combative tone for the discussion. When a meeting turns into one-upmanship between a handful of individuals, most women (though not necessarily men) are put off.
The Swedish guy evidently didn't expect this answer. In his opinion, the reason women are underrepresented in freethought groups in the US is because of "family cult", which demands perfectionism from American mothers. He wonders that maybe most women don't find atheism compatible with the standard of a selfless, devoted mother. In Sweden, he said, the concept of a family is more loose and flexible; Sweden is far less obsessed with the idea of nuclear family. He even went so far as to say -- but maybe I just didn't hear him right across the noisy table -- that Swedish language does not have a word for family, or that it has a different, looser shade of meaning than the English word. An absence of such a word would seem mighty strange to me, so I'll assume, for now, that I misunderstood. I'll have to ask my friend who lives in Sweden, to what extent this is true.
Thus the Swedish guy thought gender imbalance in the US freethought groups merely reflects gender imbalance in the population of nonbelievers. I, however, doubt it. I think there are many more nonbelieving women than come to meetings. My case in point is the Ethical Society. They don't self-identify as atheist, though most of their members probably are. I didn't meet anyone in it who believed in gods. But they built their society not around nonbelief, but around finding a moral way of living based on secular principles. And guess what -- at least two thirds of the society (at least here in Austin) are women. Their discussions revolve not around atheism, but around topics of ethical living, learning, and meaning of life in general. The tone is very different -- cooperative, non-combative, with the whole group making sure all individuals are being heard. It makes a huge difference, though these two groups come from very similar premises.