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Effective Altruism Has a Hostile Culture for Women, Critics Say


Keerthana Gopalakrishnan once considered herself an effective altruist. As a college student in India, she immersed herself in the social movement, reading its canonical texts like Doing Good Better, listening to its podcasts, and devouring effective altruism (EA) blogs in an attempt to figure out how to create a life of maximum moral impact. When the world started opening up from the COVID-19 pandemic, she moved to San Francisco and went to EA meetups, made friends with other EAs, and volunteered at EA conferences where they talked about how to use evidence and reason to do the most good in the world.

But as Gopalakrishnan got further into the movement, she realized that “the advertised reality of EA is very different from the actual reality of EA,” she says. She noticed that EA members in the Bay Area seemed to work together, live together, and sleep together, often in polyamorous sexual relationships with complex professional dynamics. Three times in one year, she says, men at informal EA gatherings tried to convince her to join these so-called “polycules.” When Gopalakrishnan said she wasn’t interested, she recalls, they would “shame” her or try to pressure her, casting monogamy as a lifestyle governed by jealousy, and polyamory as a more enlightened and rational approach.

After a particularly troubling incident of sexual harassment, Gopalakrishnan wrote a post on an online forum for EAs in Nov. 2022. While she declined to publicly describe details of the incident, she argued that EA’s culture was hostile toward women. “It puts your safety at risk,” she wrote, adding that most of the access to funding and opportunities within the movement was controlled by men. Gopalakrishnan was alarmed at some of the responses. One commenter wrote that her post was “bigoted” against polyamorous people. Another said it would “pollute the epistemic environment,” and argued it was “net-negative for solving the problem.”

Gopalakrishnan is one of seven women connected to effective altruism who tell TIME they experienced misconduct ranging from harassment and coercion to sexual assault within the community. The women allege EA itself is partly to blame. They say that effective altruism’s overwhelming maleness, its professional incestuousness, its subculture of polyamory and its overlap with tech-bro dominated “rationalist” groups have combined to create an environment in which sexual misconduct can be tolerated, excused, or rationalized away. Several described EA as having a “cult-like” dynamic.

Julia Wise, the longest-serving employee of the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), an Oxford, England-based charity responsible for growing and maintaining the EA community, acknowledges that there have been reports of sexual harassment within the community. But she questions whether the movement itself is responsible. Sexual misconduct is a problem throughout society, after all, and EA leaders cannot control the behavior of everyone moving in and around it. “Some of the concerns that have come up are maybe made by people in EA, but the perpetrator attended an event a couple years ago but they’re not that involved,” says Wise. “How do you figure out what is a community problem versus what is a Bay Area problem or sex problem or something else?”

This story is based on interviews with more than 30 current and former effective altruists and people who live among them. Many of the women spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid personal or professional reprisals, citing the small number of people and organizations within EA that control plum jobs and opportunities. Much of the alleged abuse they detailed was concentrated in the Bay Area, but the women also described incidents that took place in three other states as well as overseas. Many of them asked that their alleged abusers not be named and that TIME shield their identities to avoid retaliation. Their accounts were corroborated by other parties to the incidents, by people to whom the women spoke shortly afterward, and by contemporaneous documents and screenshots. While a few women have raised these issues on online forums, many spoke to TIME about their experiences with sexual misconduct in EA communities for the first time.

One recalled being “groomed” by a powerful man nearly twice her age who argued that “pedophilic relationships” were both perfectly natural and highly educational. Another told TIME a much older EA recruited her to join his polyamorous relationship while she was still in college. A third described an unsettling experience with an influential figure in EA whose role included picking out promising students and funneling them towards highly coveted jobs. After that leader arranged for her to be flown to the U.K. for a job interview, she recalls being surprised to discover that she was expected to stay in his home, not a hotel. When she arrived, she says, “he told me he needed to masturbate before seeing me.”

Several women say that the way their allegations were received by the broader EA community was as upsetting as the original misconduct itself. “The playbook of these EAs is to discourage victims to seek any form of objective, third-party justice possible,” says Rochelle Shen, who ran an EA-adjacent event space in the Bay Area and says she has firsthand experience of the ways the movement dismisses allegations. “They want to keep it all in the family.”

In recent years, effective altruism morphed from a niche philanthropic community devoted to addressing worldwide poverty into a powerful global network of think tanks, nonprofit organizations and wealthy donors that dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in annual charitable donations. The movement has grown rapidly, with monthly active users on the EA forum growing fivefold since 2019, more than 6,000 attendees at EA global conferences in 2022, and at least 371 active EA chapters across more than 40 countries. Most of the movement’s members—who are overwhelmingly white, more than 70% male, and skew young, according to a recent survey of members of the community in 2020—are idealists drawn to the promise of building a better world by applying rigorous logic to moral decisions. Thousands have signed a pledge to tithe at least 10% of their income to high-impact charities. From college campuses to Silicon Valley startups, adherents are drawn to the moral clarity of a philosophy dedicated to using data and reason to shape a better future for humanity. Effective altruism has become something of a secular religion for the young and elite.

But the fall of Sam Bankman-Fried, EA’s billionaire patron and most famous acolyte, who is now facing federal fraud charges tied to the collapse of his cryptocurrency exchange FTX, has put effective altruism under increased scrutiny. Like other recent social movements spanning the political spectrum, EA is diffuse and deliberately amorphous; anybody who wants to can call themselves an EA. And even in a community of self-styled do-gooders, “there certainly have been cases where people were treated badly, including sexual harassment,” says Wise, of the Centre for Effective Altruism. “This is an essential problem that all social groups face.”

Wise, whose role at CEA involves overseeing community well-being, tells TIME she has fielded roughly 20 complaints per year in her seven years on the job, ranging from uncomfortable comments to more serious allegations of harassment and more. But with no official leadership structure, no roster of who is and isn’t in the movement, and no formal process for dealing with complaints, Wise argues, it’s hard to gauge how common such issues are within EA compared to broader society.

The women who spoke to TIME counter that the problem is particularly acute in EA. The movement’s high-minded goals can create a moral shield, they say, allowing members to present themselves as altruists committed to saving humanity regardless of how they treat the people around them. “It’s this white knight savior complex,” says Sonia Joseph, a former EA who has since moved away from the movement partially because of its treatment of women. “Like: we are better than others because we are more rational or more reasonable or more thoughtful.” The movement “has a veneer of very logical, rigorous do-gooderism,” she continues. “But it’s misogyny encoded into math.”

Keerthana Gopalakrishnan in her home in San Francisco on Jan. 29.

Helynn Ospina for TIME

In a fashionable neighborhood of San Francisco, there is a Victorian house where a group of self-identified EAs, AI researchers, rationalist tech bros, and young women founders all sheltered together from the blistering Bay Area rents. While it had no formal relationship with effective altruism, roughly a third of the residents were EAs, and the house regularly hosted EA events. The residence was run by two co-leaders, a man and a woman, who signed the lease, managed the rent money, and handled the logistics of moving people in and out of a community that resembled a tech-era version of the 1960s Bay Area communes.

In late 2021, the male co-leader of the house was accused of sexual misconduct by an ex-girlfriend who says she met him at an EA conference. She reported her allegation to the female co-leader of the house. The co-leader had also had a negative experience with the man, whom she says once climbed into her bed without her consent. She brought the ex-girlfriend’s accusation to the attention of others in the house and recommended her male co-leader step down. At that point, the other residents of the house turned on her, according to both the female co-leader and the woman who made the original accusation. The co-leader “seemed to face a lot of backlash and misogyny for being a female manager handling a sexual-assault claim,” says the accuser, who like several others in this story asked to remain anonymous for professional and personal reasons. Both women said they filed reports with the San Francisco Police Department; the SFPD confirmed that the two police reports had been filed, but declined to provide them or detail any steps it had taken in response.

When the allegations arose, the other residents of the house started a Google Doc to collectively discuss how to handle them. The discussions reveal an attempt to filter disturbing, emotionally fraught allegations through the lens of math. “How do you live with someone if you think there is an X% chance they have done something horrible?” one resident wrote in the document, which was recently shared with TIME. “Depending on the exact definition of sexual assault you use, something like 1-10% of people have committed it,” another replied. “This implies a probability between 27% and 96% that you are living with someone who has done something horrible.”

Those odds did not persuade the group to immediately expel the accused. Instead, an EA living in the house suggested bringing in a mediator named Aurora Quinn-Elmore, a product manager in tech who had become known in the community for her mediation work around allegations of sexual misconduct. It did not go well. The conversations were conducted over Facebook Messenger video, in two or three sessions, according to two people who participated. After one of the alleged victims told her story, “Aurora immediately started telling us that the worst thing that could possibly happen is if the man’s career was destroyed,” recalls the female co-leader of the house, who was present for the discussion. “She said, ‘You should never go to the police.’”

The alleged victim came away with the impression that she was being strongly urged not to report the incident to authorities and remembers a general sense that the accused man’s important career was a focus of the conversations. Both women recall that Quinn-Elmore cast doubt on the man’s accuser as well as the female co-leader of the house who took the allegations seriously. Ultimately, Quinn-Elmore recommended that both the male and female leaders step down, even though only the man had been accused of sexual misconduct. (Quinn-Elmore said she recommended the woman step down as well because others had told her she was using the allegations to seize power in the house; ultimately, only the male co-leader resigned.)

Read More: Want to Do More Good? This Movement Might Have the Answer.

In an interview with TIME, the male co-leader denied both women’s allegations. He said that his ex-girlfriend had never accused him of any sexual misconduct during their four-year relationship and that the accusations only came up months after what he described as a messy breakup. He said that he and the female co-leader “cuddled a lot,” and accused her of using sexual allegations against him to maintain control of the house. “These are threats that are used to control my every action,” he said.

The unusual handling of such allegations extends beyond this one case. In another instance, Quinn-Elmore was dating an alleged abuser at the time she was mediating a sexual coercion claim against him made by another woman in the EA community. “We were involved before they started dating, we were involved while they were dating, we were involved after,” Quinn-Elmore told TIME, adding that although she spoke to both parties and recommended a path forward, she didn’t consider this to be an official mediation.

Quinn-Elmore ultimately recommended this man see a “coach” to help him learn how to navigate issues surrounding sexual consent, but recommended no further consequences for him. Soon after the episode, the accuser alleges, friends began to sever their relationships with her, often in similarly worded text messages, “as if there was a template.” It felt as if “there’s this immune reaction against you in your community,” she says. “It’s such a deep betrayal when you need support the most.”

In an interview, Quinn-Elmore confirmed that she had been involved with these disputes but said her words had been misrepresented. Her methods of “restorative justice” often include advising against involving the police because it can be retraumatizing and unhelpful, she explained, adding that she often discusses the “psychological profiles” of the accused in order to anticipate what they’d do if they were desperate to preserve their careers. “When there’s sexual violence that happens, particularly in a tight-knit community, it’s really common for it to turn into reputational warfare,” she says. “It blows up in a way that is really stressful for everyone involved and does a lot to fracture a beautiful community.”

Quinn-Elmore says she believes all of the women who say they experienced sexual misconduct and rejects any characterization that she acted as a defender of the men accused. Still, she says: “I know I didn’t handle any of these situations perfectly, that’s for sure.”

The hard question for the Effective Altruism community is whether the case of the EA house in San Francisco is an isolated incident, with failures specific to the area and those involved, or whether it is an exemplar of a larger problem for the movement.

For her part, Wise is frank about the challenges inherent in dealing with such issues. In an Aug. 2022 post on the EA Forum, she described the “tricky balance” her community-health team has to strike when it’s asked to take up claims of sexual misconduct made by someone associated with EA against another member of the broader community. Wise outlined a variety of considerations she takes into account. On the one side, “take culture seriously” and “take action against bad behavior;” on the other side, she wrote, “don’t unfairly harm someone’s reputation,” “don’t make men feel that a slip-up or distorted accusation will ruin their life, ” and “give people a second or third chance.”

“I’m weighing the possible harm to the accused if the accusation is inaccurate against the possible harm to other people in the community if the concern is accurate,” Wise wrote. “Making these restrictions as privately as possible seems to avoid the worst harms to their reputation if the concerns are unfounded, while also avoiding the worst harms to the community if the concerns are valid.”

That balancing of interests is a starkly different approach than the one espoused by the #MeToo movement that rose up around the same time as Effective Altruism. #MeToo urged society to “believe women;” EAs tend to be a bit more skeptical. #MeToo aimed to take a trauma-informed approach to sexual violence; EAs stick to their ultra-rational “epistemic standards.” That means, the women say, that consequences for sexual misconduct within EA often look much different than in the world outside EA. “I want there to be consequences when people do stuff that’s bad for other people,” Wise tells TIME. “But I also want that to be proportionate.”

Sonia Joseph began reading effective altruist blogs when she was 12. The vigorous online debates about how to have the most impact in the world provided a sense of community that she was missing as an Indian-American girl growing up in suburban Boston. But when she became old enough to join in-person EA gatherings in the Cambridge area, she noticed that many of the men she met seemed enamored with “pickup artistry,” a supposedly systematic approach to convincing women to sleep with them.

In 2018, as she was starting her career in AI research, Joseph recalls being introduced to a prominent man in the field connected to EA. Joseph was 22 and still in college; he was nearly twice her age. As they talked at a Japanese restaurant in New York City, she recalled, the man turned the conversation in a bizarre direction, arguing “that pedophilic relationships between very young women and older men was a good way to transfer knowledge,” Joseph says. “I had a sense that he was grooming me.” (Joseph says she told her roommate about the alleged incident. The roommate confirmed that conversation to TIME.)

Another woman, who dated the same man several years earlier in a polyamorous relationship, alleges that he had once attempted to put his penis in her mouth while she was sleeping. (TIME is not naming the man, like others in this story, due to the request of one or more women who made accusations against them, and who wanted to shield themselves from possible retaliation.)

Read More: How to Do Well When You Do Good.

Several of the women who spoke to TIME said that the popularity of polyamory within EA fosters an environment in which men—often men who control career opportunities–feel empowered to recruit younger women into uncomfortable sexual relationships. Many EAs embrace nontraditional living arrangements and question established taboos, and plenty of people, including many women, enthusiastically consent to sharing partners with others. There is no current data on the prevalence of polyamory in EA. One former EA data scientist says he estimates that about 30% of EA was polyamorous.

Prominent figures in EA have cast polyamory as a more “rational” romantic arrangement. The philosopher Peter Singer, whose writing is a touchstone for EA leaders, seemed to endorse polyamory in a July 2017 interview in which he argued that monogamy may be increasingly anachronistic in the age of birth control. Caroline Ellison, the CEO of the FTX-tied Alameda Research, who reportedly was romantically involved at times with Bankman-Fried, apparently posted on her blog that the ideal configuration for romantic relationships would resemble an “imperial Chinese harem” in which “everyone should have a ranking of their partners.”

Several of the women who spoke to TIME said that EA’s polyamorous subculture was a key reason why the community had become a hostile environment for women. One woman told TIME she began dating a man who had held significant roles at two EA-aligned organizations while she was still an undergraduate. They met when he was speaking at an EA-affiliated conference, and he invited her out to dinner after she was one of the only students to get his math and probability questions right. He asked how old she was, she recalls, then quickly suggested she join his polyamorous relationship. Shortly after agreeing to date him, “He told me that ‘I could sleep with you on Monday,’ but on Tuesday I’m with this other girl,” she says. “It was this way of being a f—boy but having the moral high ground,” she added. “It’s not a hookup, it’s a poly relationship.” The woman began to feel “like I was being sucked into a cult,” she says.

Gopalakrishnan also described a cult-like dynamic that favored accused men over harassed women. After writing out her concerns about the sexual dynamics within the movement on the EA forum, Gopalakrishnan watched the responses pour in. Shaken, she removed her post. She felt exposed, she recalls, and didn’t feel like being a punching bag. Most of all, Gopalakrishnan was disturbed at the way the rational frameworks to which she had devoted her life could be used to undermine her own experiences. “You’re used to overriding these gut feelings because they’re not rational,” she says. “Under the guise of intellectuality, you can cover up a lot of injustice.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter at [email protected]

Source: Time