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Attendee Shames Mostly-Male Science Panel For Mansplaining to Female Theoretical Physicist

science panel

First, let’s look at the image above of a panel on “Pondering the Imponderables: The Biggest Questions of Cosmology” which was held at the World Science Festival at John Jay College in New York City this weekend. On this seven-person panel, only one is a woman, the literal odd person out. One gets the feeling that they had a six-person panel, realized there were no women, then rushed to find one. This is the scientific community, Ladies and Gentlemen.

So already, just by looking at the image and not even hearing words, you can get a sense of the sheer imbalance in perspectives.

Watch the video of the panel below, and you’ll see that in the entire first hour, that female scientisttheoretical physicist and professor at the University of California, Veronika Hubenycan barely get a word in edgewise, even when invited to speak by moderator Jim Holt. Meanwhile, the other participantsDavid Z. Albert, George F. R. Ellis, Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, and Barry Loewerhave no problem going on and on when they speak:

It would be easy to place the blame on Hubeny herself. One hears such advice given to women in all fields: Speak louder. Use a more authoritative voice. Don’t let the conversation walk all over you. And sure, women can do a lot to advocate for themselves. However, it should not be their responsibility to take respect where it ought to be given. A moderator is a moderator precisely to facilitate other people talking, not to hog the limelight himself by showing off how much he knows and jibber-jabbering away. Yet several times, Holt asked Hubeny to speak, only to himself talk about what she’s about to say.  The other male participants followed his lead.

An interesting thing then happens at around the one-hour, four-minute mark. During one of Holt’s tangents while talking over Hubeny, a female attendee at the panel shouts out “Let. Her. Speak. Please!” And an embarrassed Holt tried to backpedal as the room erupted in cheers.

According to Observer.com, the attendee was later identified as Marilee Talkington, and she shared in a Facebook post her experience of the event, as well as the subsequent response to her standing up for Hubeny. It reads, in part:

“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!

She goes on to say that, after the event, several audience members (both male and female) thanked her for saying out loud what they were all thinking.

I love this story, because 1) It places a spotlight on what institutions like the scientific community need to do in order to create more gender parity (having more than only one woman on a panel and letting them speak would be a start) and 2) because it shows us how powerful one person speaking up can be.

The more you look around, the more sexist behavior will become apparent to you, and when you see it happening, you can say something about it. You don’t have to sit there and accept it as “the way things are” out of politeness.

Hubeny later heard about Talkington’s (has anyone been more aptly named?) Facebook post and expressed her gratitude there, saying “I applaud your heroism in standing up for what you believe in! I know well the shaky feeling and subsequent exhilarated contentment in the knowledge of having done the right thing, and I think that doing so has become more crucial than ever. Your behavior was inspiring, and I’m glad that many of those inspired shared their gratitude with you.”

She then goes on to say that she didn’t, in the moment, feel that what was happening was rooted in sexism, rather, she gave Holt the benefit of the doubt and assumed that “he was so excited by the newly-learned idea of the duality that he couldn’t resist, and that the same might have occurred had the panelist been a male instead of me.”

Still, she says the following:

“If you allow yourself to enjoy the beautiful things that really matter, if you don’t let social or peer pressure dissuade you from pursuing a field which appeals to you, then no pettiness or childishness or boorishness that you encounter can harm you so much.

Please understand that I’m not trying to say that sexism in science is a myth. It is real and we should all aspire to diminish it. But I am trying to say that it need not pose as much of an impediment as you might fear and that you might be in more control over its influence yourself than you might think. Just as you put up with long lines to see a great show, or with sore feet or mosquitoes to have a great hike etc., the annoyance of otherwise abominable behavior diminishes in the larger perspective of doing something you really enjoy.”

Yes, the fight is real. And if the fight is the thing standing between you and the thing you love doing most, the fight is most certainly worth having.

(image: screencap/World Science Festival)

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