- author, Claudia Hammond
- scroll, BBC Future
Throughout my years in the profession, I have presented dozens of radio shows and facilitated hundreds of live public events.
The question and answer session is an important part of these events. So, I always try to make everyone feel comfortable asking any questions they want.
But no matter how much I try to relax people, when hands go up, there are always more men than women coming forward to ask questions. The first hands to rise are often male.
Of course, women may have fewer questions to ask, which is legitimate. But countless times, in line for the women’s bathroom after the event, women in the audience came up to ask me the question they wanted to ask, but not in public. These are always excellent questions.
These are isolated episodes and not a set of scientifically obtained data. But after years of the same experiences over and over again, I decided to take a look at the statistics.
Most research on this topic is the result of audience feedback at academic conferences, not at events open to the general public. However, they do provide clarification. The evidence suggests that my experience is not isolated, but rather the general rule.
One example of this is the study conducted by Shoshanna Jarvis, from the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. The researcher observed people asking questions at the conference. The study was published in 2022 and the event included everyone from biologists to astrophysicists and economists.
At that conference, to ask a question, you had to get up from your chair and stand in line at the microphone, while everyone looked around. Of the participants, 63% were men, so it was expected that 63% of the questions would come from them.
Researcher Alicia Carter, who now works at University College London, reached the same conclusion in a study that included 250 symposia from academic departments in 10 different countries. It was concluded that women may Two and a half times less likely They ask more questions than men, even though men and women attend seminars, on average, at the same rate.
It is true that in these studies, observers looked only at the actual questions asked, not at who raised their hand to try to make a point. Therefore, there is a possibility that the moderators may have decided to accept most of the questions reserved for men.
When a man asks the first question at a public event, fewer women tend to ask questions afterward.
What keeps women away from Q&A sessions at conferences and talks? Apparently, not for lack of questions.
Alicia Carter analyzed surveys conducted with 600 academics from 20 countries and observed that both men and women responded that, on occasion, they did not come forward to ask questions, even when they had something to inquire about.
But women often said they didn’t ask questions because they couldn’t get over their nervousness, because they wondered whether they had misunderstood the context, because the speaker was too prominent or intimidating, or because I didn’t feel smart enough To provide a good question.
No one wants to ask a question and hear in front of 300 people that they didn’t understand what was being said. But the study indicates that this possibility mainly discourages women.
In the United States, Jarvis found that women often say they feel too anxious to ask questions. The men responded that they refrained from giving space to others – showing that some men are taking active measures So as not to dominate question and answer sessions at events.
Twice as many men as women said they were eager to ask questions when they thought they had caught a mistake. It may seem menial, but it is part of the process of speakers responding to audience criticism during academic events.
The surveys also examined the nature of questions asked by men and women. It is sometimes claimed that men are more likely to ask longer questions or attempt to present more than one question at a time. Personally, I can’t believe the number of times I announce that we have time for one last quick question and the chosen one starts by saying they have three questions to ask.
But it’s not just men who break these rules. Gillian Sandstrom, from the University of Sussex in the UK, analyzed more than 900 questions from 160 conferences or public events in an unpublished document.
No differences were found based on gender. In fact, when women asked questions, their questions were just as likely to be long or have multiple parts as men.
Comparing other characteristics of the questions (such as starting by introducing yourself, greeting the speaker, or saying “Good morning”), the only difference found between the genders was that women tended to greet the speaker more frequently.
In other words, the only real difference is who volunteers more to ask questions: men or women.
Research suggests that mediators have the ability to encourage women to ask questions at public events.
It’s safe to say that since not everyone has time to ask questions, it doesn’t matter if some people don’t introduce themselves. But the point is that if half the audience is reluctant to participate, you may not have enough of the variety and quality of questions you want.
Research so far has tended to focus on men and women, but it will also be interesting to see whether marginalized or underrepresented groups also refrain from asking the questions they want answered.
In the workplace, asking questions can put you in the spotlight — and if you want better positions, visibility matters.
In a study conducted at a conference in France, researcher Junhanlu Zhang of the Pasteur Institute found that people are more likely to remember the names of serial interviewers.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that they will be remembered positively. Maybe they’ll be remembered for being the annoying people who ask questions all the time!
There is another possible reason why the number of women asking questions is lower: the fact that, early in their academic careers, they have fewer role models than other women showing that they need not be afraid to ask questions.
How to solve?
What can be done to allow more women to ask questions whenever they want?
Apparently, the Covid-19 pandemic may have shown the way.
When events began to be held online, a new opportunity emerged to ask questions without having to say a word out loud — just type questions in a window on the screen, sometimes anonymously.
With this, you no longer have to face the inconvenience of waiting with your hand raised, feeling hopeful and fearful that you will be chosen, nor worrying about whether the microphone is working or whether you will stutter during the question while everyone watches.
Nowadays, more and more in-person events are using apps for participants to submit their questions via cell phone. The mediator is then given a list of questions in a file Wave.
Let’s say the speaker has already commented on your question when you weren’t paying attention (which is something I always worry about when I attend a conference). Well, here comes the best part: Since the moderator is charged with paying attention, he doesn’t introduce superfluous questioning to the participants at the table. It simply ignores issues that have been discussed before.
Naturally, all this would remove some of the anxiety and make women ask as many questions as men at online events, right?
Well, according to Zhang’s study, the answer is no.
It recorded the number of questions asked by women and men at a French bioinformatics conference held online in June 2021. In this field, until recently, participants were mostly men. But when the conference was held online, the number of men and women participants was almost identical.
However, men asked 115 questions, and women asked 57 questions.
Age also made a difference. Men over 35 asked nine times as many questions as younger women and sexual minorities.
In Zhang’s study, the gender of the moderator did not change the mood of the audience. But perhaps there are strategies brokers can adopt to make a difference. Sandstrom believes moderators need to find ways to make everyone feel comfortable asking questions.
It has been observed that when a man asks the first question, fewer women come forward with questions after that. It’s as if the first question sets the tone for the rest of the session.
Perhaps the solution is for the moderator to choose a woman to ask the first question – preferably younger. Of course, this only works if there are some younger women raising their hands in the audience.
When I’m moderating a talk and no women come forward to ask the question, I sometimes tell the audience about research in this area and ask frankly if any women would like to ask the first question.
Zhang’s research reveals another possible solution: taking a short break between the keynote speaker and the start of the question-and-answer session. This is smart technology. It allows people to practice their questions with their neighbors in the audience.
I tried this alternative and was able to get a lot of questions. People can check whether their questions are good, or whether they were not discussed in the lecture while they were not paying attention.
It has also been found that women ask more questions in longer sessions. I know that not everyone will agree with this idea, but it might be helpful to devote more time to questions at the end of lectures.
Currently, we rely on research conducted in academic situations. It would be interesting to see if the same thing also happens at public events.
The advantage of these techniques is that they help not only women, but all people who may feel marginalized and less willing to speak out.
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