I have to admit that how they did it horrified me.
The first speaker gave a talk that was in many ways very good - he used superheroes as an engaging hook to capture children's interest, and designed some very novel and interactive demonstrations to convey some very complex concepts. I sincerely hope that this post is taken in a spirit of constructive criticism that would allow him, and others designing similar engement activities, to make them truly excellent. Where it fell down though was in the quite startling degree of sexism it demonstrated. I'm not going to name the event or the first speaker, as I'm sure the biases and sterotypical thinking displayed were entirely unconscious rather than deliberate (after all the very definition of privilege is having the luxury to be unaware of such issues) and because I doubt he is alone in exhibiting them - rather than a critique of a single event I think this should be an opportunity for everyone to think about making our science communication more inclusive.
The speaker mentioned a number of people, real and fictional in his talk. Males mentioned were the werewolf from Twilight, Superman, Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk - admittedly the werewolf character was probably written as eye-candy but the rest were discussed as admirable characters and powers that would be desirable to share. Females mentioned were Dolly Parton (in the context of a joke about Dolly the sheep being cloned from breast tissue) and Beyoncé Knowles twice: the first time in the context of the fly with the golden bum named after her (yes really), illustrated of course by a picture of Beyoncé's bum in a gold lamé dress, and the second in the context of how wonderful it would be if we could all clone a copy of her. Men, in short, were shown as heroes with agency (with the possible exception of the werewolf) whereas women were either the butt of jokes or objects of admiration, in both cases for their physical characteristics. Given that half of the audience was female this certainly wasn't a message I wanted them to be taking away from a science fair.
On top of this one of the demonstrations struck me as potentially rather racially insensitive: the demonstrator asked for a volunteer from the audience and started putting pegs in his hair. I don't know whether he would have modified this part of the demonstrator if the volunteer had been Black, but I would have found a Black kid on stage having their hair messed with by a white man incredibly uncomfortable and really there was no need to do it at all.
To top it all off he ended with a slut-shaming joke, saying that all bacteria are slags because they'd share DNA with anyone which apart from anything else may not have been appropriate for such a young audience.
The second talk was far better, with no sexist jokes, one of the three kids selected as volunteers being a girl and videos shown of children of all sexes and ethnicities doing experiments. I did notice however that again the three demonstrators were all white and male: perhaps not a problem in isolation but coming straight after the first talk may perhaps have reinforced the impression that science was not for everyone. Both talks were repeated in the afternoon, but I was too busy to pay attention to the balance of volunteers.
I did wonder whether I was overreacting, seeing problems where most wouldn't notice them, until one of the class teachers stopped me on the way out and begged me to feed back how awfully sexist the talk was to the demonstrator. I'll try, though as a lowly volunteer I doubt I'll get the chance to talk to him, but I genuinely believe he was acting with the best of intentions, completely unaware of how problematic some aspects of his talk were, and I doubt that this issue is unique to him; for this reason I hope that this post will serve to feed back to some extent to the scientific communication and engagement community.
16/3/13: Edited the add that the speaker has now responded to me and taken these points on board.