When Polite Isn’t Going to Cut It: Calling Out Everyday Sexism at Conferences
This weekend’s science superhero is Marilee Talkington. Talkington was attending the World Science Festival in New York City and lost her mind in the best way possible when the only woman on a panel was largely not allowed to speak.
A bit of backstory: women in science are asked to sit on national panels and give fewer keynote addresses then men. Several champions of presentation parity are Jennifer Martin, Jo Handelsman and Jonathan Eisen, who have raised awareness of this problem by boycotting conferences that fail to include women in these prestigious slots. Even Tumblr has gotten in on the action with all white male panels getting the official David Hasselhoff thumbs up on this hilarious/soulcrushing site.
The World Science Festival panel had six male speakers and a male moderator who were monopolizing the conversation, interrupting and talking over the panel’s only female member. With thousands watching, Talkington took bravery to the next level.
I took the liberty of adding some links and photos to her genius Facebook post….
(quoted from Talkington) I was live-feeding the beginning of the panel discussion on FB. That panel was made up of some of the greatest and most famous minds in the world in Inflationary Cosmology, String Theory, Cosmology and Physics based Philosophy. The panel was made up of 5 men and 1 woman. And the moderator was a science writer and journalist for the New Yorker.
In the first hour of the panel discussion you can see clearly, if watching the video, that Veronika Hubeny, the only woman on the panel, is barely given any opportunity to speak. And the moderator, Jim Holt, even acknowledges this.
In the last 20-30 minutes of the 90 minute discussion Jim Holt finally pushes the conversation to Hubeny’s field of expertise, string theory, and this is what ensued:
He asked her to describe her two theories of string theory that seem to contradict one another.
And THEN, without letting her answer, proceeded to answer for her and describe HER theories in detail without letting her speak for herself.
We could clearly see that she was trying to speak up. But he continued to talk over her and dominate the space for several minutes.
I should say that this panel was taking place in a large auditorium as it is an extremely high-profile and always sold-out event. And the panel discussion was being live-streamed across the world and they say that millions of people watch these videos after they are made public. (Which they already are).
So at this point, after seeing very clearly that she was not going to be given space to speak and in fact having her own theories described to the audience by the moderator, I am in full outrage. My body is actually beginning to shake. The sexism is beyond blatant. It is happening on stage and NO ONE, not a single other physicist or panelist is stepping in to say anything about it. And I can hear other audience members around me, both men and women becoming more and more agitated with what is happening. Jim Holt, even at one point, asks Veronica a question and she laughs because he has been answering his own questions about her work…and he makes fun of her for ‘giggling’.
So at some point while he is still talking about her theories, I just can’t handle it any longer.
With my hands shaking, I finally say from my seat in the 2nd row of the audience, as clearly, directly and loudly as possible;
“Let. Her. Speak. Please!”
They all stop.
The auditorium drops into silence.
You could hear a pin drop.
And then the audience explodes with applause and screams.
Jim Holt eventually sat back, only after saying I was heckling him
And he let her speak.
And of course, she was brilliant.
So, the panel discussion ends.
My hands are still shaking. I’m still upset by the incredible sexism that has been demonstrated this afternoon. But I also realize that I just spoke up in an auditorium full of people that are listening to people that are considered gods in the international science world. I was just overwhelmed by it all.
We get up to leave.
And then it happens.
Person after person come up to me. Both men and women.
The first woman, right behind me, reaches over and embraces me and says, “Oh my god. What you said was the most important thing that was said all day. Thank you. Thank you.”
And then people start filing out of their aisles and wind their way over to me:
“Was that you? Thank you so much for speaking up. Thank you.”
“Was that you? Oh god, what he was doing was horrific. Thank you. I wanted to do something but didn’t know how.”
“Was that you? I wish I had the courage to say something, thank you! Thank you so much.”
“Was that you? You said what everyone here was thinking. Look, I had even been writing in my notebook what you eventually said (shows me his notebook with ‘let her speak’ written over and over.) But you said it. You said it. Thank you.”
“Was that you? Thank you! I felt so powerless to do anything.”
So we were all thinking this.
So I walked out. And my friend, who was sitting about 8 rows behind me, came up to me with a huge grin and said, “That was you, wasn’t it? Of course it was. YES!!!!! I will be telling this story for years.”
And the whole time, my hands are still shaking. And I’m feeling light-headed. And I just want to scream out into the lobby, “WHY IS THIS SEXISM STILL HAPPENING? WH, does someone like me, with no status in that room, have to be so extraordinarily bold and speak up? And why was it so frightening to do so?”
And I’m thinking. “God, please god let this be an opening for those that were here today and the tens of thousands that watched the live-streaming of the panel yesterday and the hundreds of thousands that will watch the video this year- to speak up when we see this happening. And please let me not be afraid to do this again
Because it was scary.
Please keep giving me courage. <End repost>
Let’s hope this inspires other moderators to be more mindful and more male panelists to advocate for their female colleagues.
Do you have a hero in the science community who has called out bad behavior and lived to tell the tale? We’d love to hear about them and highlight their efforts!