Want to get women to ask more questions at events? Talk about it

Study backs up earlier findings that women are less likely to ask questions at conferences, even when they are in majority – but that raising awareness of the issue can have a big impact

June 28, 2019
Source: Alamy
Raise your hand: a new study finds that, even when women made up about 70 per cent of attendees, they still asked only about 40 per cent of questions

Getting more female voices heard at academic conferences may not necessarily be achieved simply by getting more women to attend, but raising awareness of how less likely they are to ask questions can make a significant impact, according to a study.

Stanford University researchers who analysed participation in question-and-answer sessions at the American Society of Human Genetics and Biology of Genomes conferences over four years, found that, while women made up 53 per cent of estimated attendees, they asked only 35 per cent of recorded questions.

This backs up previous research which found that women were significantly less likely to ask questions at academic conferences.

However, the new study finds that, even when women made up about 70 per cent of attendees, they still asked only about 40 per cent of questions.

This argues against the hypothesis that women are discouraged from asking questions because they are in a minority.

“For a long time, we’ve been saying that as soon as we reach 50 per cent representation, all differences in behaviour will go away, but this provides a really important counterpoint to that,” said Natalie Telis, a Stanford PhD graduate and co-author of the study, published in The American Journal of Human Genetics on 27 June.

Dr Telis said that, at this rate, an audience would need to be 80-90 per cent female before the questions were evenly split between men and women.

What Dr Telis did find made a difference, however, was raising awareness of this disparity. At a Biology of Genomes conference in 2015, she shared existing results demonstrating the underrepresentation of women in question-and-answer sessions. The resulting discussions prompted a change in policy – so that the first question after each talk was offered to a junior academic, Dr Telis explained.

This led the proportion of questions asked by women at the event to rise from about 10 per cent to 30 per cent. The figure remained higher in subsequent meetings, suggesting that the discussion had a long-lasting impact.

At a separate event hosted by the American Society of Human Genetics in 2017, Dr Telis repeated the experiment by describing her preliminary findings in a plenary talk on the opening night of the meeting. While the total proportion of questions asked by women stayed the same, the proportion of talks with no questions asked by women decreased from 51 per cent to 30 per cent.

“With a simple and immediate intervention – public discussion – we changed behaviour, at least in the moment,” Dr Telis concluded. “It’s clear that discussion has some impact. But that’s not the end of the story and I’m excited to see what else we can try.”



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