Who asks questions at conferences? It depends on the gender of the speaker

While attending conferences this summer, I learned a lot about biology, but I also learned something about biologists. Presentations at these conferences follow a consistent format, with the researcher presenting PowerPoint slides describing their newest findings and the research’s significance. The speaker customarily concludes by acknowledging collaborators and funding sources, and a polite round of applause is followed by a few minutes for questions. Several hands shoot into the air, and a well-known senior professor sitting at the front is called on first. The pecking order for asking questions seems transparent, but I took a closer look at who asks questions and who sits quietly in the audience. Intriguingly, I found that female speakers are asked an equal number of questions by men and women, while male speakers receive a disproportionate number of questions from other men.

In a range of academic contexts, including graduate courses, department retreats, and conferences, I’ve noticed that men seem to ask more questions than women do, but since our perceptions of the amount of time men and women spend talking tend to be skewed, I needed data to be sure. At the first biology conference I attended this summer, my hunch proved correct: 70 percent of the questions were asked by men, though they comprised only 52 percent of the audience. It was clear that senior researchers tended to raise their hands most often, but I wondered whether the identity of the speaker influences who asks questions.

For my next investigation, my experimental system was the International Caenorhabditis elegans Conference, a meeting of over 1,600 scientists who gathered from around the world to share research on a tiny transparent worm that’s a useful model for biological processes from embryonic development to aging. Most of the presentations were given by graduate students and postdocs, and during the two-minute question periods following each talk, I recorded the gender of the speaker and the genders of those who asked questions.

A pattern quickly emerged: women were much more likely to ask questions of other women than they were of men (see graph). My own talk was perfectly representative of the typical talk given by a woman—I got one question from a woman and one from a man. Talks by men also received an average of two questions, but 76 percent of those questions were asked by men. This means there’s a significant association between the gender of the speaker and the gender of the questioners. Because I’m a scientist, I checked whether the result is statistically significant, and it is (p<0.001 by a Chi square test, meaning such a dramatic association is very unlikely to occur by random chance).


Number of questions per talk asked by men and women for 98 talks at the 2017 International C. elegans Conference.

The conference included three different types of sessions, and the trend held for both plenary sessions in a huge auditorium and smaller parallel sessions. Workshop sessions featured extra time for questions, but I couldn’t fully check the gender association because all the talks in the two workshop sessions I attended were given by men. Consistent with the pattern, the clear majority of questions in these workshop sessions were asked by men.

Multiple explanations come to mind for why people are more likely to ask questions to speakers of their own gender. Perhaps conference attendees were more engaged when someone of their gender was speaking and therefore more likely to think of a question. In other contexts, men are more likely to interrupt women, suggesting that they may be less attentive when women are speaking and therefore less likely to formulate questions.

Audience members may also be more engaged when someone of their own gender is speaking if subdisciplines are somewhat segregated by gender. For example, if mostly women study meiosis and mostly men study evolution, then most meiosis talks will be given by women, and most meiosis follow-up questions will be asked by the same group of women.

The gender discrepancy could also stem in part from the differing linguistic styles used by men and women to negotiate social status. Social science research has shown that in childhood, girls playing with their friends tend to steer clear of calling attention to themselves or sounding superior to avoid being called “bossy.” On the other hand, boys expect each other to display status by showing their knowledge or giving orders. As these patterns carry into adulthood, perhaps women hesitate to ask questions that showcase their knowledge or challenge another researcher’s approach, while men have less apprehension about sharing their own ideas.

For example, during one talk, I thought the (male) speaker overlooked a likely explanation for one of his findings. I was unsure whether it was most appropriate to raise the issue during the question time or talk to him privately later, but while I was considering, a man was called on and made exactly the point I was thinking. If the speaker had been a woman, would I have skipped the hesitation and been the first one to comment?

Even without a full understanding of the possible reasons for the association between the gender of speakers and questioners, conference organizers can take steps to even out the number of questions asked by men and women. The session chair, who introduces each speaker and calls on people for questions, is already at a microphone and frequently asks multiple questions during the session. Ensuring that the session chairs, as well as the invited speakers, represent the demographics of conference attendees should help balance the gender of questioners.

Though dissecting precisely why people ask or don’t ask questions may be impossible from my seat as an audience member, I plan to continue my analysis at future conferences. I hope that scientifically observing the practices and rituals surrounding science will uncover the voices that are missing and the questions that aren’t being asked out loud.

Featured image credit: Cornelia Schneider-Frank 

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