Men Ask Most Questions at Conferences, but There's an Easy Way to Narrow the Gap

Dana Najjar

June 28, 2019

A new study shows that men ask most of the questions at scientific conferences, but public discussion of the differences in question-asking behavior can encourage women to speak up, rectifying a disparity that equal representation alone may not.

Women are professionally underrepresented in all science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) fields across the board, despite the fact that they earn more than half of all STEM bachelor's degrees in the United States. There were also more women than men enrolled in US medical schools for the first time in 2017. At scientific conferences, however, women are underrepresented as speakers and as Q&A participants.

"The most important finding is that women underparticipate in Q&A sessions across the spectrum of their representation, whether 30% or 70% of people in a room are women scientists," study coauthor Natalie Telis, PhD, told Medscape Medical News. There would need to be 85% more women than men in a room for the Q&A to be evenly split across genders, she explained.

Telis, who was a graduate student at Stanford when she carried out this research, became interested in the problem of underrepresentation after noticing that she was often the only woman raising her hand at conference sessions. She and coauthor Emily Glassberg, PhD, began by manually collecting data on the genders of Q&A participants at all sessions they attended at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) from 2014 to 2016, and the Biology of Genomes meetings between 2015 and 2018.

They widened the scope of their data collection at ASHG in 2017, where they described the initial results of their findings at a plenary session, then invited all attendees to record data on Q&As through an online portal. To make sure all questions were properly accounted for, Telis and Glassberg developed an algorithm to reconstitute the entire sessions from the recordings of different participants.

Their study, published online yesterday in the American Journal of Human Genetics, showed that simply drawing the attendees' attention to the disparity had positive effects: Although the total proportion of questions asked by women remained unchanged, the proportion of talks in which women asked no questions at all decreased from 51% to 30%.

The crowdsourced data revealed that women ask fewer questions than men regardless of the gender of the session's speaker, or of how many other women were in the room, which the authors attribute to both external factors and internalized gender bias: Asking questions "seems to be tied to feelings of confidence and belonging,'' said Telis. "It's a canary in a coal mine."

"The really important finding here is that things changed when people talked about it," said Alison Johnston, PhD, an ecological statistician who has also studied gender disparities in question-asking behaviors at academic conferences. It's important to quantify the disparities, but the real work is in proposing interventions and measuring their success, she said.

Telis was quick to point out that focusing on getting equal numbers of women in STEM is important, but it's just a first step. It's tempting to think that "as soon as we have an equal number of women in an audience, other measures of disparity will disappear," she explained. "But when you cross from 49% to 50%, you don't lose the cocktail of socialization as people that we experience in our society."

Telis sees a scaling opportunity that can be applied to conferences across all disciplines: Draw the attendees' attention to the question-asking disparity, and they will likely work to correct it, giving more women the opportunity to raise their hands and their voices.

"Asking questions can be its own reward," she concluded. "It's ultimately the kind of perfect meritocratic dialogue: no matter who you are, you can stand at a microphone and engage in scientific dialogue with someone who has brought their ideas."

Am J Hum Genet. Published online June 27, 2019. Full text

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