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How to stop men asking all the questions in seminars – it’s really easy!

December 13, 2017
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I spotted a short item on gender bias in academia in the Economist this week and tweeted it, which then went viral. questions in seminarsThe tweet read:

‘In academic seminars, ‘Men are > 2.5 times more likely to pose questions to the speakers. This male skew was observable only in those seminars in which a man asked first question. When a woman did so, gender split disappeared’. CHAIRS PLEASE NOTE – FIRST Q TO A WOMAN – EVERY TIME.’

Which confirms an impression I’ve had when chairing assorted discussions – if you let men dominate from the start, it stays that way, but call on women for the first few questions, and things work out much better.

The research paper that backs up the stats can be found here. It’s based on survey responses of over 600 academics in 20 countriesand observational data from almost 250 seminars in 10 countries. Kudos to the authors, Alecia CarterAlyssa CroftDieter Lukas and Gillian Sandstrom. Their broader recommendations are:

‘Increasing the time for or number of questions reduces the imbalance in the questions asked. We recommend that, where possible, the question time not be limited. This could be achieved through, for example, booking a seminar room for longer than one hour so that the next event in the room does not cut short the question time. Having said this, our data suggest that to overcome the male-first question bias, upwards of 25 min is needed for questions, which was a rare occurrence in our data and additionally may be a taxing requirement for the speaker after having given a seminar.

Alternatively, keeping questions and answers short will allow more questions to be asked during a given question period, and could be an alternative method to allow greater balance in the questions asked. We feel that more could be done through active changes in speakers’, attendees’ and particularly moderators’ behaviour. Having an active, trained moderator may avoid those situations where one audience member seems to be “showing off” (which survey respondents claim to be the case quite often), or is going off-topic, or a speaker who goes over time.

We would recommend that, should the opportunity arise, a female-first question be prioritised because this was a good predictor of low imbalance in the questions asked in our observational data. In addition, moderators could be trained to see the whole room (location was mentioned as a factor), and to maintain as much balance as possible with respect to gender and seniority of question-askers. In the open-ended survey questions, respondents complained that moderators call on people they know or more senior people, overlooking the rest.

speeches disguised as questionsAlthough it may seem fair to call on people in the order that they raise their hands, doing so may inadvertently result in fewer women and junior academics asking questions, since they often need more time to formulate questions and work up the nerve.

Our data clearly show that women are not inherently less likely to ask questions when the conditions are favourable—there is no gender bias when a woman asks the first question. Our suggestions should be seen as aims to create favourable conditions that remove the barriers to speaking up and being visible.’

One of the single most useful bits of gender-related research I’ve read in a long time. I will do things differently from now on.

Update: most useful additional advice on twitter comes from Joe Smith. He attended a recent seminar where the chair announced he would take Qs in order ‘girl-boy-girl-boy’. Lets people know in advance, is obviously fair, and is light hearted and infinitely preferable to male chair ‘look how feminist I am’ trumpet-blowing.

5 comments

  1. This is still just allowing a handful of people to ask questions after a presentation. There are other ways of running discussions that avoid the time limitation mentioned, such as pyramiding, breaking into small groups and flipped learning – where they view a video of the presentations before turning up, then spend the time asking questions, discussing and working on a problem.

    1. I think you’re ideas for alternative ways of running discussions makes sense David, but I think you may have missed the point of this article. It’s about how to ensure there is a gender balance in the Q&A sessions. Even if you have did things like working in small groups and then feeding back, in my experience, it seems that men tend to dominate these sessions. Women do the writing, men do the talking. I’ve recently been to events where they have asked for a women who has never asked a question before to ask the first question and then for a man to do the same. I thought that worked well.

  2. Duncan, your tweet gained some traction on Aotearoa/New Zealand twitter. I wonder if you have any reflections/anecdata on the question someone asked as to whether a similar thing happens in the comments section on blogs such as yours. You briefly mentioned to me when we met in NZ earlier this year that your comments section may tend to be more man-dominated and you encouraged me to continue to comment – so I have ;-). I have also made a conscious decision as an attendee to formulate a question during the talk, be confident, and have very strong body language during question time = gaining the moderator’s eye, and hand up very high almost before the call for questions has finished – with some success.

    1. Hi Sharon, if I had more hours in the day, there is undoubtedly more I could do to improve the gender balance on the blog, in terms of both posts and comments. On comments the equivalent of ‘calling on a woman for the first question’ would probably be replying/engaging more with women commenters. I am also aware that my links in posts are probably heavily gender skewed. Always more we can do on this! The beauty of the seminars research is that it highlights a single, easy and remarkably effective intervention. If chairs everywhere take note, we can really change the dynamics of discussions, preferably without making a big song and dance about it. Result!

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