There are times when polite just doesn’t cut it. And one of those times occurred yesterday, at a panel discussion during the World Science Festival. Flanked by six men – three at either side of her – Veronika Hubeny was posed a question on her field of expertise (string theory and quantum gravity) by the host. And then she tried to answer. And then a scenario depressingly familiar to women all over the world played out on the stage.
Earlier in the 90 minute discussion, the host, Jim Holt, had already acknowledged that Hubeny had barely been given the opportunity to speak. Yet, when he finally posed a question to her about her own work, he openly ignore her (several) attempts to respond. Instead, Holt proceeded to explain her own theory back to her immediately, in excruciating fashion. He explained, and he interrupted, and explained again, in front of a baffled audience. That is until, a voice – seemingly out of nowhere – cut through his monologue, and the bullshit sitting centre stage:
“Let. Her. Speak. Please!”
"Let her speak!" How many times have you shouted those words at a screen, or feel them threatening to burst out of you at a similar event, or panel, or discussion? How many times have you felt the rage simmering when you're on the other end of it, being casually silenced by a monologging man, and been unable to do anything about it?
When Marilee Talkington witnessed what was happening to Hubeny from the second row of the audience, she decided it was time to do something about it. "Shaking" with outrage, she later said, she shouted out. And her response was met with gratifying uproarious applause from the rest of the audience, who, it turns out, had all been silently seething too. The exchange happens around one hour and five minutes into the video below.
Holt apologised and then, quite hilariously, muttered that, “this happens to me all the time”, and asked if he talks too much, before finally allowing Hubeny to speak for herself.
“And, of course, she was brilliant,” Talkington said in a lengthy viral Facebook post after the event, before explaining that other members of the audience had commended her actions in putting a stop on the sexist behaviour they were all privy to. “Person after person come up to me,” she wrote. “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.’"
These occurrances might seem small and inconsequential to some, but they are a metaphor for much bigger, more damaging issues
Talkington said that she was "still shaking" later, as people continued to thank her for standing up for Hubeny. "And," she continued, "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 she's right, isn't she? She shouldn't have to say anything at all – and in an ideal world, she wouldn't need to. But all too often, these incidences, which we write off as relatively minor, go ignored. And isn't ignoring a problem the same as upholding it?
When it comes to women being unfairly silenced, it's time we took a stand, Talkington said. "... Please god let this be an opening for those that were here today," she said in her post, "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."
She shouldn't be afraid to call out sexist behaviour for being precisely that – and neither should anyone. These occurrances might seem small and inconsequential to some, but they are a metaphor for much bigger, more damaging issues. In this case, that's the deplorably few women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, and the fact that those who do make it into the industry are subject to greater gender bias and increased sexual harassment. Young women watching this video should see their future selves in balanced, fair panel, not one which silences and belittles them.
It can be scary to speak up. But when the accusation of being rude, or socially awkward is used as a tool for upholding sexist behaviour, it’s time to chuck the rule book out of the window. Some battles can’t be won with manners alone. We need to Let Her Speak.