Women (not) asking questions in seminars

More great research in women in the academy confirming what many feminist epistemologists have suspected. To non-academics, the issue studied may appear less important than it is: the relative frequency of women asking questions in academic seminars. However, in academia, asking questions after talks (whether at conferences or at talks within the department) is an important way of showing off your smarts, networking, and learning. It’s also a crucial conduit for practicing public speaking skills, which matter for job interviews, giving your own talks, and teaching.

For me, verbal interaction, especially in Q&As, was the most terrifying part of academia. I’m not the kind of person who thinks on my feet quickly, and I have extremely low self-esteem, so I’m very unlikely to think that I have a good enough question or comment in a short Q&A period. (The same applies to occasions involving intellectual banter over dinner with a speaker, and the myriad ‘small’ social interactions that determine whether you will be recognized as a Bright Young Thing.)

It’s refreshing to see people do empirical work to validate the experiences of women and other minorities. Some of what’s found in the study isn’t surprising: For example, they found that men are 2.5 times (relative to their actual prevalence in the audience) as likely to ask questions as women. The real interesting bits are their proposed reasons for this phenomenon (as inferred from their causal model), and their proposed interventions.

Reasons

The studies included self-reports on how frequently people asked questions and their reasons for not asking questions, in addition to actual observations of audience question-asking behavior in many institutions in Europe, across three disciplines (biology, psychology, and philosophy). In line with other research on women in universities, they found that women were more likely to attribute not speaking up to internal factors such as worrying that they are not clever enough, whereas men were more likely to cite external factors like a lack of time. This is in line with other studies such as those in Unlocking the Clubhouse, where it was found that women tended to blame their innate qualities when they did badly in a computer science course, whereas men were more likely to blame external factors like the instructor (unsurprisingly, this caused women to drop the major at a higher rate, even if they weren’t actually performing worse than men).

Two reasons that may not have been obvious to even feminist epistemologists stood out:

  1. The gender of the first person to ask a question. When the Q&A time was less than 20 minutes, there is a large gender imbalance in question-askers if the first questioner is a man, but no imbalance if the first questioner is a woman.
  2. How long the Q&A lasts. The authors estimate that the gender imbalance disappears when the Q&A is about 50 minutes long.

Conveniently, these are factors that lend themselves to relatively easy intervention. The authors propose that moderators make an attempt to call on a woman as the first question-asker. They also propose longer Q&A times, and attempted to conduct an experiment where they asked some organizers to shorten the period allotted to talks. However, this experiment failed because the organizers in question failed to do this, letting the speakers go over time. To those of us who’ve been through academia, it should be no surprise that it’s really difficult to limit how long a speaker goes on — many people are bad about being firm enough to just shut down someone when they exceed the time limit.

Drawing from my own experience, however, one measure that could be taken to increase Q&A is simply to have more seminars (or conferences) that don’t have a conventional “talk” as the main body of the seminar. Instead, have more workshop-style seminars where the author doesn’t present a full “talk”, but gives the audience a paper beforehand, which everyone is expected to have read before the seminar. The author can then give a very abbreviated summary of the paper, or there can be short commentaries on the paper followed by a short author’s response. The bulk of the time can be reserved for discussion. I’ve only had one such conference experience, at the Vancouver Summer Philosophy Conference, and the workshop format is one of the reasons why it is the only conference in my life that I’ve enjoyed. The Q&A definitely met the threshold of 50 minutes, the moderators were excellent, and the organizers had a quota system to ensure that nobody asked too many questions over the course of the conference.

Miscellaneous

The social epistemology revealed by the paper is pretty in line with feminist epistemology. For example, men consistently under-estimated the gender imbalance in Q&A (though on average they did perceive one), and also the reasons for why women don’t speak up.

One factor, however, that many might expect to matter but didn’t in the study is the proportion of women in the home department who were faculty or graduate students. These negative results are also key to informing our interventions — we can’t just assume that hiring or admitting more women will ameliorate all gender-related obstacles (though it may ameliorate some).

I’ll end with one finding that is so stereotypical it’s almost funny: Men were more likely than women to cite having spotted a mistake in the talk as a reason to ask a question.