Although society still has a long way to go before we reach true gender equality, it’s fair to say that we’ve come a long way since the suffragette movements in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In theory, women can reach achievements on a similar level to men, but in practice, that always isn’t possible. Societal change can some take a long time, and there are still some sad instances of misogyny in daily life.
One of the ways in which women can struggle in traditionally male-dominated workplaces is the phenomenon of “mansplaining”. No matter how skilled or experienced a professional is in her chosen field, there are some men who will often interrupt her, in order attempt to explain things to her she already knows in a patronising manner. Those men are, of course, way out of line, and at a panel held at the World Science Festival in New York, one mansplainer got exactly what was coming to him.
Operating out of University of California, Davis, Veronika Hubeny is one of the foremost authorities on theoretical physics. Her research mainly revolves around string theory as well as quantum gravity, and when she was invited to sit on a panel at the World Science Festival entitled Pondering the Imponderables: The Biggest Questions of Cosmology, you’d hope she would be given the platform to explain her ideas in a clear and interesting manner. Not so.
The world of science and engineering is notorious for its lack of female representation, and on the World Science Festival panel, Hubeny found herself outnumbered by five male scientists to one. The panel was led by Jim Holt, who is a science writer for the New Yorker, and for the first hour of the panel, Hubeny found herself unable to get a word in, shut down by Holt at every turn.
After 60 minutes, Holt finally engaged Hubeny on an intellectual level, giving her the opportunity to speak to her about her expertise in quantum gravity and string theory. Unfortunately, when Hubeny started to speak, Holt continually talked over her; explaining her own ideas back to her in a condescending manner. This is when one of the audience members stepped in.
As Holt and Hubeny struggle over one another for the forum, a lone female voice rings out from the audience: “let her speak, please”! After a short silence, the auditorium erupts into applause, and although Holt initially complains that he “always gets heckled”, he does allow Hubeny the chance to explain her ideas.
The woman who spoke out that day was Marilee Talkington; she’s a legally blind actor and writer, who’s also a firm activist for women and artists with disabilities. On Facebook after the panel discussion, she talked about the situation that unfolded in front of her, and described her decision to speak out.
” 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… 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 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.“
To his credit, Jim Holt realised his mistake after the fact, saying that he had “talked too much”, and revealed that he had apologised to Veronika Hubeny after the panel discussion. Despite the progress we’ve made over the years, the battle for genuine gender equality remains on, and it will take more courage from the likes of both Veronika and Hubeny and Marilee Talkington before women are given a truly equal platform in today’s world.