- Research suggests that men are significantly more likely than women to ask questions in Q&A sessions at academic conferences.
- Women are more likely than men to report fearing backlash in response to their questions or comments.
- Men are more likely than women to say they held back on speaking during Q&A sessions to make space for others.
Academic conferences are where researchers gather to share new research findings and theoretical developments. Although sessions at these conferences can take many forms, most involve some type of presentation followed by a question-and-answer (Q&A) session. New research published in the journal Psychological Science explored whether men and women participate equally in these Q&A sessions. The results suggested men were significantly more likely than women to ask questions in Q&A sessions, in part because women were more likely than men to fear backlash in response to their questions or comments.
When there is a limited amount of time available to ask questions following a presentation, taking up that time with your own questions or comments is an exercise in power. In essence, you’re communicating to others in the room that what you have to say is valuable and worth their time and consideration. It’s a way of “taking up space” and a signal of confidence. In general, individuals with more power are more likely to speak first, to speak more, and to interrupt others. On the other hand, individuals with less power tend to pay attention to potential threats from others, which can inhibit their speech.
In this new research, psychologists examined Q&A behavior across two conferences. The first conference was interdisciplinary, with 375 attendees from a wide variety of fields, including biology, engineering, economics, law, medicine, psychology, and physics. During 32 separate post-talk Q&A sessions, conference attendees could line up behind a microphone at either side of the room to ask questions or make comments. Because the conference was recorded and posted online, researchers could examine in detail who asked questions after each presentation.
Results revealed that men were more likely to ask questions during Q&A sessions. Though men made up 63% of those attending the conference, they initiated 78% of the questions/comments during these sessions. Men were also substantially more likely than women to be among the first four audience members to approach the microphones to ask questions or make comments. Interestingly, both men and women were more likely to engage in “polite behaviors” when the speaker at a session was a woman. Polite behaviors included things like thanking the speaker for their talk or praising the talk before asking a question.
In a second study, the researchers examined Q&A behaviors at a different conference, this one a large psychology conference with more than 4,000 attendees. At this conference, women outnumbered men (61% of attendees were women). The researchers sent surveys to conference attendees that asked questions about how the attendees approached Q&A sessions at that specific conference and at conferences in general.
Women reported substantially less comfort participating in Q&A sessions than men — a full point higher on a seven-point scale ranging from “very uncomfortable” to “very comfortable.” This lack of comfort may have been driven, in part, by the fact that women were also more likely than men to report fearing backlash (negative evaluations or retribution by others) in response to asking questions or making comments during Q&A sessions. In a surprising finding, men were more likely than women to say they held back on speaking during Q&A sessions to make space for others to ask questions. The authors of this research note that the gender difference in the rate of question-asking (with men asking more) might have been even larger in years past, before men were encouraged to consider “holding back” in order to give others room to speak.
As the authors of this research note, there are likely several reasons why women ask fewer questions than men at academic conferences. Certainly, fearing backlash is a key explanation for this pattern. Research shows both men and women view women (but not men) more negatively when they talk more during meetings. It’s also possible that men and women have different standards when it comes to evaluating whether the question they want to ask or comment they want to make merits taking up time during a Q&A session. In other words, men might have a lower bar for deciding their comment is worth making.
Regardless of why women ask fewer questions at conferences, the fact that they are less comfortable doing so has important implications. As the authors of this research put it, “To the extent that men engage more than women, men continue to have more influence over the direction of science.”