Out Loud At The World Science Festival: Let Her Speak
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
— Coco Chanel —
Today’s blog from Marilee Talkington's June 4th Facebook post is reposted with her permission. She was an attendee of the 2017 World Science Festival and chronicled her recent gutsy journey from audience member to GenderAvenger.
So, after thinking about this overnight, 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 Facebook. 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 comes 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 the 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."
And on and on.
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? 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...and again...and again."
Because it was scary.
Please keep giving me courage.