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Women ask fewer questions than men at conference talks, new studies suggest

When you ask a question at a talk, you turn from an anonymous listener sitting in the dark to a speaker in the spotlight. The attention can be nerve-wracking. But an insightful query can bring valuable visibility to junior researchers (not to mention fill in knowledge gaps). However, according to two recently released studies, women ask disproportionately fewer questions than men at conference talks, even when women make up a majority of the audience.

At an international conservation biology conference, male scientists asked on average 1.8 questions for every one question posed by a female scientist, the first study reports, even though the audiences of the 2015 meeting sessions that the researchers analyzed ranged from 40% to 75% female. The results held true among younger scientists too, suggesting that the overrepresentation of male question-askers didn’t simply reflect the fact that senior scientists tend to be men. “It’s not just due to demographic inertia,” says senior author Alison Johnston, a statistical ecology researcher at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Cornell University.

A second study presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics also found that women were underrepresented among question-askers at that conference over the previous 3 years, even in subfields where women made up the majority of the attendees. “We have this assumption that, ‘Oh, if we can just get the number of men and women in a room to be the same, then magically all behavioral differences will disappear,’” says author Emily Glassberg, a biology graduate student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who co-led the study with Natalie Telis, a biomedical informatics graduate student at Stanford. “But this just speaks to the fact that there's something more complex going on.” (At this year’s conference, in addition to collecting data themselves, Glassberg and Telis invited attendees to submit information about the questions they heard.) 

When it comes to career advancement, asking questions at a conference talk may not seem as important as publishing and getting grants. However, conferences are networking opportunities and avenues for scientists to build their reputations, Johnston says. When attendees don’t ask questions, they may miss out on some of the unique rewards of going to conferences. For example, James Davenport, an astronomy postdoctoral fellow at Western Washington University in Bellingham who similarly found that women were underrepresented among those who asked questions at a 2014 astronomy conference, says that asking questions helped him gain a foothold in his field early in his career. “[It] was a way for me to get my presence and ideas known without having to write 100 research articles or have one-on-ones,” he says. Asking questions has also helped him develop his thinking about his research, he says. But he recognizes that the social cues he’s received as a white male have helped confer the confidence to put himself in the spotlight.

One question these studies bring up is whether women are not putting themselves forward, are not being given the opportunity to ask questions, or some combination of the two, says Anna Kaatz, the director of computational sciences at the Center for Women’s Health Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. If women are less likely to be called on, the data could reflect the speaker or moderator perceiving men to be more competent and worthier of airtime, Kaatz notes. On the other hand, if fewer women raise their hands in the first place, that could indicate women feeling their questions need to be flawlessly formulated before they can ask them, which leads to them not asking at all, Kaatz says. Women may fear that a poorly worded question gives the impression that they are less competent, she notes. Because women are often evaluated by higher standards, men “don’t have the same consequences as women do for saying things that aren’t perfect.”

Anecdotally, it appears that reservations about speaking up is a contributing factor. Glassberg says many women have told her and Telis that their data motivated them to overcome their hesitations to ask questions. Glassberg also notes that, since starting the project, she has pushed herself through her own reluctance and has been asking more questions at talks. Now that she’s more comfortable doing so, she’s felt more engaged at conferences. “It helps you feel like this is your space, that you are part of the community and not just a spectator,” she says. “I would say it feels like it’s been a good thing for me.” Johnston notes that people who don’t put themselves forward at talks may also be holding back more in daily interactions such as lab meetings and department seminars. “This can be an indication of behavior across a wider range of professional settings,” she says, “and I think that gives it greater implication.”

At the same time, the authors of these studies don’t assume that speaking up is the main way to be successful. Solutions should focus on ways to promote participation broadly across professional settings, not just encourage women to ask questions after talks, Johnston says. As Davenport suggests, “you should engage in the conference in whatever way that works for you.”

*Update, 27 October, 12:05 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that Glassberg and Telis are co-lead authors.

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