Effective Altruism London (EAL) events usually attract significantly more men than women. In summer 2018, I hosted two focus groups of regular attendees at EAL events: one with four men, and one with three women (including myself). Both men and women benefited from EA ideas, learning, career benefits, socializing, and shared values. Both men and women faced time and social costs, as well as a feeling of being ill-informed or not smart enough. Women particularly emphasised time costs. The women interviewed said that gender-specific costs are not a major factor in their attendance, although they had occasionally experienced some level of sexual harassment and did find anti-feminist views at EAL events uncomfortable. In the conclusion, I suggest some next steps in diversity research for Effective Altruism, including interviewing women who have stopped attending EA events.
Effective Altruism London (EAL) events usually attract significantly more men than women. In particular, 60-70% of attendees at EAL socials 2016-2018 were men. Other events, such as lectures, projects, and career coaching, are more evenly balanced.
Men are also more likely to return to EAL events. 33 men have been to seven or more EAL events between 2016 and 2018; only eight women can say the same. Although similar numbers of men and women initially attend EAL events, women are much less likely to return.
Over the past two years, how many attendees have been to exactly…?
This phenomenon has been reported in other EA communities, such as the Bay area, and has been identified as a potential problem in the EA movement. Three years ago, Alex Gordon-Brown argued that it is important to have visible diversity in areas like gender and race, because it’s a quick way for people to establish a bond. Additionally, he suggested that we should expect women to be uncomfortable if they’re significantly outnumbered by men. Several authors, including Ben Kuhn, Julia Wise, Kelsey Piper, and Michelle Hutchinson, have suggested ways to make EA more welcoming.
Over the past several months, I’ve been investigating why EAL events attract more men than women. In summer 2018, I posted an article with some descriptive statistics provided by David Nash showing that women are as likely to attend an event initially, but less likely to return to events.
One theory about why this could be is that both men and women attend EAL events for predominantly selfish reasons, based on their own personal cost-benefit analysis, and the costs are just higher for women (or the benefits are higher for men). Based on this theory, I decided to set altruism to one side and investigate the personal costs and benefits people face when deciding if they should attend a community event.
I ran two focus groups with regular attendees of EAL events – one with men, and one with women. We discussed several questions about the events and the EA community. I analysed those discussions to look for similarities and differences. In particular, I wanted to know what costs and benefits men and women experience when attending EAL events. Do women face higher costs to attending events? Do men experience greater benefits? What could the experiences of regular EAL attendees tell me about gender differences in EA?
Methods and Limitations
I hosted two focus groups, one with four men and one with three women (including me). Participants were chosen because they had the highest attendance rates for the gender at EA London events in 2017-18, excluding paid staff. I split the groups by gender to try to see if there are different costs or benefits for women, and if that might explain some of the gender imbalance at EA London events.
The focus groups were semi-structured: I asked the same questions to both groups, but didn’t try too hard to keep people “on topic.” After the focus groups, I transcribed the conversations (with help from David Mears) and analysed them by highlighting the different costs and benefits participants had mentioned. I chose to interview people who are very involved because it gives us a better understanding of why people are motivated to participate in the EAL community. It also gives us some understanding of differences in costs and benefits to men and women attending EAL.
However, it’s based on a very small sample in a specific place and time, so we can’t assume these motivations extend to everyone. We also can’t rule out that the possibility that the women at this focus group had a much better than average experience with EAL, or are less bothered by some aspects of EAL than other women. In order to have a good idea of why women are less likely to attend EAL events, we’d also need to interview women who have stopped attending events.
Why were these individuals drawn to EA events?
Everyone I spoke to was initially drawn to events based on the ideas of Effective Altruism.
– “I think the first thing that piqued my interest was he had this idea that you could be rational about doing good.”
– “I think when I first started coming to EA events, I was still trying to work out my position on different bits of the EA jigsaw. And so coming to events and talking to people and hearing lots of what different people had to say about it was really helpful.”
– “I just like talking to people who, they’re interested in similar areas, or have a vaguely similar way of looking at things, and I like to be able to quite quickly talk about specific or deep issues”
– “[I’ll go to an event] to learn more about EA … if there’s an external speaker from an EA organization I haven’t come across before because I think I’m going to get something more in depth.”
The biggest reason stated for continued attendance is continued learning, whether that’s about EA ideas or another topic.
– “[I come to EA events when] I really want to learn something new, and I really want to meet some people.”
– “[My reading group] keeps me really disciplined with making progress through my reading list and achieving the learning goals that I wanted to do.”
– “the best benefit [is] bringing something new, something stimulating, something [to make] me think, and pushing me as well.”
– “I quite enjoy being around smart people, so I quite enjoy the whole thing of just listening in on conversations that are on about things I wouldn’t have considered”
– “[coming to EA events] was a great push to look for gaps in my knowledge”
– “It’s nice to actually push forward your state of thought on something”
Several people had found career benefits from being involved in EAL.
– “the other biggest benefit has been all of these career connections. I would not have the job that I have now, if it were not [the EA community].”
– “I think it makes a lot of things that I found scary, less scary [like career changes].”
– “at one point David Nash and I did some sessions where we did planning, and what are your priorities, and what are the things that you want to do and achieve… and that was really valuable and really useful.”
Both men and women said they really enjoy socializing at EAL events. They enjoy spending time with people who have shared interests, catching up with friends, and (for some individuals) the debate-oriented or not-worried-about-looking-cool culture.
– “chatting with people that are kind of cool, people that are animated, […] people that are active, I think is something I enjoy.”
– “I come to see people and just to kind of catch up and see my friends kind of thing. I think I come less for EA.”
– “[Socializing] makes them [EA organizers] a little bit more – they’re super approachable, but it makes them a little bit less daunting.”
– “I live for debate.”
– “because people are much more thinking-orientated or action-orientated, they don’t care so much [about looking cool].”
– “When I leave possibly most events, if not a significant number, I’m on the train home or whatever thinking, “Yeah, really enjoyed those conversations, really look forward to reading those articles, really look forward to seeing those people again,” which I do get with some friends but not as reliably, just because I really enjoy discussing and debating the sort of subject matter that tends to come up in EA events.”
Attendees were very grateful for the shared values of the EAL community.
– “the value of being part of a community that’s all doing the same thing, and that preventing value drift”
– “It [pushes] me to do stuff. Because I see other people stuff and it’s not a competition, but it just like, it helps me to – to be like – it’s a bit like, “Oh well, they can do it, so I should try to do it.”
– “some people were giving 40 or 50 per cent and that was considered normal. I thought that was – it was almost a relief, I think, to meet other people who thought that this wasn’t crazy.”
– “people … care about this kind of thing [helping others]. That was news!”
– “I don’t think the guys are here to flirt with the girls. I think they can do it sometimes, but I don’t think this is what they are here for.”
– “I think in EA, people care about helping to achieve [their projects].”
– “[When I was participating in an EA project,] I felt like in some way I was helping in the way that I have best to offer.”
Why don’t they attend more events?
Time was the most frequently mentioned cost.
– “obviously sometimes I’m busy”
– “[Strategy meetings take] a lot of time.”
– “Time is definitely the biggest thing that stops me”
– “I don’t have time for everything.”
– “I’ve actually missed EA socials because I’ve been working on EA stuff.”
One of the student attendees mentioned money as a factor.
– “I don’t really like going to pubs and spending money particularly much”
Social events were very popular with most of these attendees when they first became interested in EA, but as they learned more, conversations quickly became repetitive.
– “those conversations that you have at those socials are quite often the same conversation really. Like you don’t get past a certain point necessarily, unless you’re picking it up with somebody maybe that you’ve already got to that point with already.”
– “I stopped going to pub socials as well, recently, actually. The conversations—it was a lot of the easy new ideas, and I can’t be arsed with the hard new ideas.”
– “if it’s somebody who you haven’t met before, or if they’re, especially if they’re new to EA, you just—You don’t end up having such a detailed conversation.”
Both men and women often felt uninformed or not useful at EAL events.
– [about strategy meetings] “I don’t think I’m particularly well informed—a lot of people in the room are not particularly well informed about how to make the decisions involved”
– “it’s … a bit scary, because sometimes people assume, “Oh? Have you not heard about this mathematical thing?”
– [about talking to newcomers] “So there’s the inadequacy concern, that I’m not actually the right person they should be talking to, because I’ll forget to do the things I say I think I’m going to do, but other than that I like talking to people when I have time.”
– “I think most of the people in EA have PhDs [and I don’t].”
– “now I can say, “Oh, I think you might be wrong about this and this and this,” because I’ve done a lot more of the reading. But there was a while where people were kind of acting quite confident about things they had kind of read about and it made me really nervous.”
Several men and women mentioned difficult or very intense people as a negative factor. Many also mentioned the cost of meeting new people in general.
– “[At pub socials,] often I get stuck talking to people I don’t want to talk to.”
– “there are usually people that need to be managed and you have to do some management of those people”
– “some [animal-oriented EAs] could be quite like, “This is what we should do and you see what I’m doing is what you should do.”
– “People that are unconstructively disagreeable …Those people can be frustrating.”
– “[I sometimes feel uncomfortable after talking to] intense people, people more suffering-focused ethics. Those with a more pessimistic worldview in a way.”
– “maybe it’s also a personal preference where I don’t love groups of people where the majority of people are people I don’t know.”
One of the men only attends events on certain topics.
– “I’ve never been to any of the animal events, not because I’m not interested in it, just because it’s not where I think I specialize. Or maybe it’s cuz I don’t know people a bit. I’m just speculating. I just think I’ve never been to an animal event despite caring about the issue.”
One woman found the confrontational nature of some EA conversations uncomfortable.
– “the only things that really make me uncomfortable is I guess when you feel like you’re challenging people about things that they believe or do”
One of the men mentioned that location was a major factor for him.
– “Some events … have been … an hour and a quarter [away from] me, if not more.”
– “I felt a little bit [unsafe] walking in and out of [the home of one EAL organizer, in a rougher neighbourhood].”
The women interviewed were feminists and found others in EA didn’t share their views.
– “I would assume, probably wrongly, that people are feminists because it’s a rational option for me.”
– “I’ve definitely met EAs who think feminism is absolutely ridiculous and it certainly seems to be much less taken for granted.”
– “The burden of proof is on us to like prove that we’ve been disadvantaged by society rather than on someone else to prove that they have something new, worth saying. …Whereas in other circles you would be like, “No, you have to have really strong evidence, you have to have a really strong case to bring up this topic because we know that people just attack women for no reason.””
– “I definitely think I avoid the conversation as well cuz I don’t want to be disappointed in people.”
– “I don’t tend to care too much. Yeah, and I’m kind of used to it, because I work in the world where like it’s only guys and sometimes they think I’m the secretary, so I’m fine.”
The women recalled minor incidents of sexual harassment or discomfort, such as being clumsily hit on at social events or repeatedly messaged by someone they’d met, but stressed that they didn’t think EA was worse than other environments.
– “I guess it would be uncomfortable anywhere.”
– “[Sexual harassment is] just so prevalent in the world.”
– “Yeah, I think that was the only experience where … But actually, I was very proud about how people reacted so…”
– When telling a story about being harassed at an EAL event, a woman commented on how oblivious the men in the room seemed: “I remember looking at the person who brought him…” and thinking he should intervene.
– One woman found the whole conversation about safety at EAL events very frustrating: “I kind of hate the whole narrative that women should always have to think about safety.”
As of summer 2018, EA London had a noticeable gender gap at events. However, the men and women interviewed had very similar reasons for attending EA events, and very similar reasons for skipping some events. Although the women did raise some gender specific costs, especially around their feminist beliefs, they stressed that gender-specific costs were not a major factor in their attendance at events.
To some extent, it isn’t surprising that the women who attended events the most often aren’t experiencing a lot of (or particularly concerned about) gender-specific costs. It’s possible that the women who attend one or two events and then leave experience more gender-specific costs (eg sexual harassment) or are more sensitive to gender-specific costs (eg anti-feminism; being the only woman in the room).
Both men and women talked a lot about time costs, but the women especially emphasised that attending an EA event often means choosing not to attend another event they would enjoy. It’s possible that in London, women are engaging with EA ideas at an equal rate to men, but experience a heavier time cost or less of a community benefit from attending socials and so only attend more learning-focused events.
In December 2018 I talked to David Nash about these results. He said that EA London is deprioritising community events to some extent, in favour of one-on-one coaching, the monthly newsletter, and a looser ‘network’ approach. This research certainly supports the perspective that attending an EA event is not always the most effectively altruistic use of one’s time.
This project investigated why people do regularly attend EAL events. I would be very interested to see these follow-up projects:
The personal costs and benefits of attending EA events in another city.
The personal costs and benefits of online involvement in EA.
The personal costs and benefits to those who choose not to carry on attending EA. In particular, I’d be interested in interviews with women who attended three or more EA events and then chose to stop attending.
The extent to which people perceive different EA events to help or hinder their altruism.