An esoteric scientific panel has gone viral this week—not because of its discussion of odd phenomena in the universe, but because its moderator was called out by an audience member for “mansplaining” to a female scientist.
On Wednesday night, UC Davis professor Veronika Hubeny was the only female participating on the panel, moderated by philosopher and New Yorker science writer Jim Holt.
Before the controversial exchange, Holt noted that Hubeny hadn’t spoken as much as her male counterparts. “We haven’t heard enough from you… and these guys have been gassing on forever,” he said.
Holt began asking Hubney questions—but also frequently interjecting.
It’s worth noting that Holt frequently interrupted all panelists throughout the entire discussion; he also summarized the male panelists’ arguments and theories for the audience, using descriptions that included less scientific jargon.
Still, Holt did kind of hold forth. “So you said all of it,” Hubney joked after one of his questions, which he had answered himself. She later said Holt’s moderating style didn’t bother her, and that she didn’t want to assume that his frequent interjections were motivated by sexism.
Still, the panel has gone viral, based solely on the moment that an audience member shouted out, “Let her speak please!”
Hubeny chuckled, and the audience began to clap and cheer. The video has since blown up on social media, cited as a prime example of mansplaining, as well as evidence of sexism in science.
The woman who shouted out from the audience, actress and activist Marilee Talkington, later recounted the situation on Facebook. She was offended that the panel included just one woman, and aghast that Holt “continued to talk over her and dominate the space for several minutes,” which Talkington interpreted as “incredible sexism.”
“I am in full outrage,” Talkington wrote. “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. … [Even after] 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?’”
Talkington’s post generated more than 25,000 likes. And Holt has since apologized, telling Mic that “the reproach from the audience was well-merited.”
In a Facebook comment, Hubeny called Talkington’s behavior “inspiring” and commended her for “how you bravely stood up for your principles and values.”
But Hubeny also added: “You may be amazed to hear it, but during this panel session I genuinely did not feel affronted or discriminated by the moderator’s behavior. It seemed more amusing to see him try posing a question in a way that at the same time tried answering it. It’s true that this made the question a bit of a moving target for me (and therefore harder to address coherently), but I don’t a-priori assume that the incident was rooted in sexism. Maybe I’m too naive, but I simply gave him the benefit of doubt 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. So it didn’t bother me. “
Hubeny also added that, even though women were a “striking minority in science,” she has never felt discriminated against within the field.
“The feeling was rather one of camaraderie: the challenges to unravel the deepest mysteries of the universe, the thrill in understanding another tiny bit of this grand puzzle, and the sheer wonder at how beautifully the physics hangs together, put us all in the same boat, so to speak,” she wrote.
Hubeny added that while sexism does exist in science, “it need not pose as much of an impediment as you fear.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.