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.
PZ Myers says
You know who is really good at this? Rebecca Watson, which is kind of surprising. She’s always got something funny to say and has the potential to totally dominate a panel, but she doesn’t. And when she’s got the role of moderator, she becomes incredibly conscientious and talks less (the latter isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s the job).
I am feeling a little choked up right now.
Among the many peculiar things about humanz is our seemingly instinctual desire to not rock the boat. To hope someone else speaks up. But moments like this can grow. It can be the Tiananmen square (though try not to think how that turned out!). The stone wall. I certainly hope so!
CaitieCat, Harridan of Social Justice says
One of the ways in which I truly knew I’d reached acceptance as a woman was when I noticed men talking over me, repeating my ideas as their own, and so on. Hell of a way to realise.
Rob Grigjanis says
Watching Holt is nigh unbearable. I felt like punching him five minutes in. I had to give up after about 22 minutes; he’d just explained to Guth and Linde, at some length, their work on inflation. And my crappy machine had only loaded about a third of the video.
Aside from the sexism, could Holt be rehearsing to replace Chris Matthews on Hardball?
And also Chris Hayes, the champion motormouth next to Mathews, and most of the rest of the MSNBC hosts who tend to over-explain, reiterate and generally provide TMI in every introduction and beyond, often taking the steam out of their guest’s responses.
PZ, have you been watching Charlie Rose again?
consciousness razor says
I don’t think Holt did a bad job generally, definitely not by the standards of other non-expert moderators in panels like this. He tried a couple of times to bring things away from the measure problem*, to move into Hubeny’s discussion about holography, as the audience member you quoted also pointed out:
And if you actually watch that part of the video (doesn’t sound like you have, PZ), Hubeny was introducing the holographic principle, uninterrupted for a couple of minutes. Somebody objected when he briefly tried to bring in a metaphor, which was supposed to give a basic sense of what’s so puzzling about it, and he immediately apologized and let the focus go back to her, again without interruption (from Holt or anybody else) for several minutes, until there were again good reasons to bring in another perspective that puts a little pressure on the kind of theory she was outlining.
So, I’m not a fan of Holt’s, but “how not to be a panel moderator” seems really unfair to me. For such complicated and arcane topics, I think a normal audience needs things like that from time to time, so the point won’t fly over everyone’s heads. That’s just the moderator’s job, and he was certainly doing the same kind of thing when the men were talking. He wasn’t interrupting that much generally, but at various points he tried to put things into the language and perspective of a non-expert (when the experts weren’t already doing that). Seems entirely appropriate to me.
*Note that George Ellis wasn’t contributing to that part of the discussion either. After dropping a few turds near the beginning, that was about it. Beyond that, it was very much a back and forth between Guth/Linde on the defense and Albert/Loewer raising various questions and objections.
consciousness razor says
Or even the World Science Festival, for that matter. You don’t have to look any farther than Brian Greene himself (who’s even an expert!) for a moderator who’s constantly interjecting with random superficial bullshit that doesn’t move the discussion forward at all.
I seldom comment, but geez consciousness razor I think you missed the point. Let me guess….you’re male.
consciousness razor says
Yes, that’s correct, voyager. I read the OP and watched the whole video. (Cosmology is one of my interests anyway, so I’m glad I heard about it.) But I don’t know what point I may have missed. It’s sad they only had one woman on the panel, and they all certainly could’ve given her more chances to contribute. Even so, it’s hard to see how Holt was being a bad moderator, in that particular moment when the audience member objected, or throughout the program. He was a little self-conscious at that point, saying he may be talking too much. But if you actually look at it, he was trying to be helpful and conversant and responsive to what she and others were saying, not interrupting anybody all that much, especially considering how much these topics needed to be brought back down to Earth in order for the audience to get anything out of it.
Good on her for speaking up! Once he let her speak, she was excellent!
consciousness razor, you keep mentioning the video as though viewing it is a trump card that outweighs the testimony of audience members, who apparently disagree with you that they needed the hand-holding and who, in addition to thanking Marilee Talkington for making her objections known to Holt, are also confirming to the press this impression of mansplaining.
As for Holt doing a good job in general, what you describe here
is a result of the precise opposite of thoughtful, illuminating moderating closely adhering to what the audience were promised from this panel.
Brian Pansky says
Who Moderates the Moderators? :P
consciousness razor says
No. Viewing it is more helpful than reading the testimony of audience members (more helpful to you, for having a clue of what this is about), either those in the room or those like myself who saw it on video. If you just want to read my testimony, you could do so, but I would not insist that’s the best you could do. Because it isn’t.
Besides, as you know, other people have different perspectives, which you should take seriously as well. I don’t think I’ve got any trump cards here. I just don’t see what the fuss is about. I tried to be thoughtful and give a few reasons why I don’t see things the way they were presented, and that’s it. Maybe somebody can help me with that, maybe not.
I wouldn’t say so. Certainly that description simplifies things (it is close to an hour of people talking after all), but nothing in it should suggest they drifted away from the established topics the audience was promised, which was mainly to outline inflationary multiverse theories and discuss their pros/cons. I’d say they had an interesting and productive and very focused conversation about it, and I’d say that Ellis and Hubeny (for various reasons) didn’t play a big role in that part of the conversation. Holt did, because he was the moderator, and that covers all of the fairly large number of people on the stage. Perhaps watch the video yourself, to see what I mean, because I don’t expect you to simply take my word for it.
Just to elaborate a little more on this, I think Ellis’ bullshit was a big time-wasting distraction, time which could’ve been much better spent discussing Hubeny’s ideas (or anything else) in more depth. So, take out that dude and put in somebody like Janna Levin maybe. That would’ve been great. But I don’t think that has anything to do with how well the moderator worked with the panel he had onstage, since unfortunately he couldn’t just leave Ellis sitting there silently or not let others respond.
No, you didn’t. You tried to sow doubt that the people who viewed the video, like PZ, are somehow mistaken or lying about what they viewed, or didn’t watch it closely or thoroughly enough. And you didn’t mention the live audience at all. Being dishonest about that — insisting that you were offering up a different view as opposed to trying to actively disprove someone else’s by speculating that they were not telling the truth — is silly, given that it’s all in writing and this is a remarkably short thread.
*snort* Why anyone would care to do so, I’ve no idea.