Men tend to dominate the question-and-answer sessions at academic conferences, potentially wielding a significant influence over the future trajectory of scientific research. Recent research sheds light on the reasons behind this phenomenon, revealing that women often hold back out of fear of facing backlash.
Over and over, researchers have found that men disproportionately take the lead in posing questions at academic conferences. The phenomenon has been documented regardless of whether more women or men attend the talk. It happens when the speaker is a man and also when a woman is behind the podium. It occurs at in-person conferences, and according to research published last week in the journal Sex Roles, men also dominate the Q&A at virtual conferences. Women are particularly under-represented in asking the first question.
This male dominance in question-asking may seem trivial compared to other gender disparities female academics face. Yet, it is perceived by some as pivotal in shaping the course of future scientific exploration. Shoshana Jarvis, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author on several studies on the topic, asserts that academics use these question-and-answer sessions to glean insights and inspiration for future directions for their research. The suggestions provided can offer speakers fresh perspectives on their work. “It’s about whose voices are turning the gears and whose voices are creating the conversation everyone is listening to,” Jarvis says. At academic conferences, this influential voice is predominantly male.
The gender disparity is not attributable to women’s lack of comments and questions. Men and women interacted with the research similarly, and the researchers found no gender differences in the ability to engage with the material and come up with questions or comments. Moreover, in some studies, individuals interested in asking questions formed a line at a microphone, indicating that the gender difference couldn’t be explained by speakers calling on men more frequently.
Instead, according to Jarvis’ latest research, which is not yet peer-reviewed but posted on the preprint server PsyArXiv, women are holding back out of fear of backlash. In studies using hypothetical situations, women are more likely than men to agree that they hold back questions because “Others might think I’m too self-promoting,” “I might be disliked,” or “Others might think I’m too assertive.”
Jarvis explains backlash could potentially come from the presenter or other colleagues in attendance. “The way the speaker responds to a question might make you feel a certain way like they didn’t take me seriously, or they didn’t think my question was a valid question worth answering,” she says. This reaction could leave women thinking, “Maybe I need to recalibrate myself and my expectations for how I’m interacting with space,” she adds. There can also be “behind-the-back” conversations where conference participants may judge some responses more harshly.
Women’s fears in this environment could stem from past encounters with backlash. Research has established that women experience backlash for behaviors more commonly associated with men, including advocating for themselves, assertively negotiating and even taking up space. A more hostile reaction to women speakers has been noted in academic conferences, and one set of researchers found negative reactions toward female presenters in economics. After analyzing data on every interaction between presenters and their audience in hundreds of economics research seminars, the researchers concluded, “Women are asked about 12 percent more questions per seminar, and they are asked more patronizing and hostile questions, and those questions are more likely to be rated as unfair.”
In explaining why female economists at the podium are treated this way, the authors concluded, “It seems unlikely to us that these findings reflect an explicit plan by seminar attendees to treat women differently. Instead, they may speak to implicit bias, or perhaps more darkly, an undercurrent of misogyny in a male-dominated culture.” Awareness of this differential treatment women face would naturally add stress to the decision to participate in a conference setting.
How do we make the atmosphere at these conferences more hospitable to women? Unfortunately, Jarvis says it’s not an easy fix. According to her research, both men and women expressed a higher comfort level in posing questions when informed that the audience was perceived as notably friendly and open. Getting to a place where the audience is truly more welcoming will be a more difficult challenge.