Women much less likely to ask questions in academic seminars than men

  • Date

    Wed 3 Oct 18

A new study reveals a stark disparity between male and female participation in a key area of academic life and offers recommendations to ensure all voices are heard.

Women are two and a half times less likely to ask a question in departmental seminars than men, an observational study of 250 events has found. This disparity exists despite the gender ratio at these seminars being, on average, equal. 

The research, involving Dr Gillian Sandstrom, from our Department of Psychology, adds to a growing body of evidence showing that women are less visible than men in various scientific domains and helps to explain the ‘leaky pipeline’ of female representation in academic careers.

Women account for 59% of undergraduate degrees but only 47% of PhD graduates and 21% of senior faculty positions in Europe.

The bias, identified in a paper published in PLOS One, is thought to be particularly significant because departmental seminars are so frequent and because junior academics are more likely to experience them before other kinds of scholarly events. They also feature at an early stage in the career pipeline when people are making major decisions about their futures.

“Our finding that women ask disproportionately fewer questions than men means that junior scholars are encountering fewer visible female role models in their field,” warns lead author, Alecia Carter, a then Junior Research Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge.

“This problem can only be addressed by lasting changes in the academic culture which break gender stereotypes and provide an inclusive environment,” she added.

In addition to observational data, researchers drew on survey responses from over 600 academics in 20 countries. They reported their attendance and question-asking activity in seminars, their perceptions of others’ question-asking behaviour, and their beliefs about why they and others do and do not ask questions.

The survey revealed a general awareness, especially among women, that men ask more questions than women. A high proportion of both men and women reported sometimes not asking a question when they had one, but they differed in their ratings of the importance of different reasons for this.

Crucially, women rated ‘internal’ factors such as ‘not feeling clever enough’, ‘couldn’t work up the nerve’, ‘worried that I had misunderstood the content’ and ‘the speaker was too eminent/intimidating’, as being more important than men did.

Researchers found women were more likely to speak up when more questions were asked, but when the first question was asked by a man, the proportion of subsequent questions asked by women fell 6% compared to when the first question was asked by a woman.They also found women ask proportionally more questions of male speakers and that men ask proportionally more of female speakers.

“This may be because men are less intimidated by female speakers than women are. It could also be the case that women avoid challenging a female speaker, but may be less concerned for a male speaker,” said Gillian.

Key recommendations from the report were:

  • Where possible time limits should not be put on question and answer sessions and moderators should keep each question short to allow more questions to be asked.
  • Moderators should prioritise a female-first question and should maintain as much balance as possible between genders and the seniority of questioners.
  • Inviting internal speakers, who the audience are more familiar with, could encourage more questions.
  • A short break before the question time would allow attendees more time to formulate a question.

“Although we developed these recommendations with the aim of increasing women’s visibility, they are likely to benefit everyone, including other under-represented groups in academia,” concluded Gillian.