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Sexist Comments Spark Outrage at Major Astronomy Festival

A panelist at Starmus said he trusts Siri with a "male" voice.

by Kate Lunau
Jun 21 2017, 9:53pm

Chris Pissarides (right) participates in a roundtable discussion during the Starmus Festival in Trondheim, Norway. Image: Michael Campanella/Getty

The Starmus Festival is now in full swing in Trondheim, Norway, with artists, scientists, and other thinkers gathered around topics relating to space exploration and astronomy. Already, Stephen Hawking has made headlines there for suggesting that humans need to colonize Mars and the Moon ASAP, or move on to Alpha Centauri.

But on Wednesday, some heavy criticism began to emerge on Twitter that the famous festival is heavily skewed towards male panelists—criticism that became louder after Chris Pissardes, a Nobel-winning economist, suggested from the stage that he trusts Siri more when it has a "male" voice, a comment that can be heard in this video.

In a Q&A with the audience, astronomer scientist Jill Tarter got up and took the panelists to task for "piss[ing] off half the world's population," singling out Neil deGrasse Tyson for not stopping the negative comments. (At that point, deGrasse Tyson can be heard speaking up.)

Some high-profile attendees, including astrobiologist Sara Seager and physicist Jim Al-Khalili, who last year won the festival's Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication, said on Twitter that they'd left as a result.

"Starmus is a unique festival of science and music," Al-Khalili wrote me in an email. "Last year, [we] all acknowledged that there was a marked lack of women invited speakers and to a large extent this was addressed this year." At this year's festival, he continued, he heard excellent talks from Seager, Nobel laureate May-Britt Moser, and other female speakers.

Read More: Machine Learning Reveals Systematic Sexism in Astronomy

"My criticism on Twitter referred to a particular comment by a male panellist who made a highly sexist remark that was not picked up by moderator Larry King and should have been," Al-Khalili said, calling it "offensive to many."

"Starmus deeply regrets the sexist comments made by Chris Pissardes during a panel discussion and we accept the outrage that this has sparked," a spokesperson for the festival told me over email. "Our programme consists of incredible women and men from all over the world and we have made it clear that comments of this nature will not be tolerated at our festival. Our sole mission is to communicate science to the public at large, recruiting the world's leading scientists regardless of gender."

Ellinor Alseth, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, is originally from Trondheim and attended the Starmus festival for the first time this year. After Tarter called out the panelist, Alseth sent her a tweet thanking her as a "young female scientist."

I phoned Alseth in Trondheim. She she was grateful for Tarter for calling out sexist remarks from the panel. "It was very nice to have her stand up and make a comment about this," Alseth told me, adding that "overall, the festival has been great."

Panels have been skewed male, she agreed, but partly it's because there are way more male Nobel laureates than females (its own problem originating with the Nobel Foundation's selections), and Nobel Prize winners are heavily represented here.

Alseth agreed that more female voices are needed in science. "I think diversity is the way to go."

Update: This story has been updated with comment from a Starmus spokesperson.

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