I’ve seen this happen so often, and not just to women. You’re on a panel; it’s not a debate, but an opportunity for a group of people who supposedly respect each other to discuss a topic. Then there’s one guy (and in my experience, it’s always a guy) who’s practically vibrating with enthusiasm and is eager to interrupt at any point with his point. He may not even disagree with other panelists — he’s just absolutely certain that he can explain everything better than everyone else. A prime example of this occurred at the World Science Festival. Here’s the perspective of one attendee.
So, after thinking about this over night, I’ve decided to share something that happened at the WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL yesterday afternoon in NYC that changed me. Or rather made me step into who I am in a larger way.
As some on my feed have seen, 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!”
The moderator stops.
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 felling light-headed. And I just want to scream out into the lobby “WHY IS THIS SEXISM STILL HAPPENING? WHY, 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.
I’m going to be on a bunch of panels at Convergence next month. I’ve done this many times before. When I’m on these panels, I tend to be very conscious of time and opportunity — I’m mentally measuring everyone’s contribution, to both make sure I get my turn with my very important opinion, and also to make sure I’m not dominating the conversation. It’s OK to say your piece and then sit back and listen.
The problem is particularly severe when you’ve got a chatty moderator who does his job of setting up a question and giving each panelist their moment to shine, but then can’t shut up and insists on explaining his perspective and interpretation of everything. Moderators should be there to smooth the flow of discussion among the panelists; they are not King Hot Stuff of the subject. Learn this: if you’re the designated moderator, it’s because you’ve been asked to serve the panel, not because you are the greatest expert who deserves the most time.
Moderators are not the show. They’re the guy who shines the spotlight on the people who are the show.