Female lecturers more likely to 'freeze'

June 23, 2006

Female academics are much more likely to freeze or become incoherent when lecturing than their more confident male colleagues, according to research.

Women who suffer performance anxiety are not poor at presenting but they are intimidated by their audience and by the perceived "masculinity" of public speaking, the research found.

Sara Mills, a professor of linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University, studied the attitudes of female and male academics to presenting papers after observing a normally "overbearing" female colleague go to pieces on stage.

She found stark differences in the way the sexes viewed public speaking and in their response to feeling nervous.

Professor Mills stressed that not all women suffered stage fright. But she said: "It is my contention that particular types of gender identity and preconceptions about the masculine nature of public speaking may be activated or challenged in the process of giving academic papers."

She found that women were more likely to freeze because they felt marginal within their university or expected their audience to be hostile in question-and-answer sessions.

She described the experience of one female colleague at a conference: "Male colleagues had aggressively asked her questions in a way that she felt aimed to destroy her argument. She felt personally undermined, and her confidence was so shaken by the experience that she subsequently felt very uneasy about giving papers at all."

In contrast, male respondents did not admit to similar anxiety, perhaps because public confidence is key to the construction of masculine identity.

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