Gender in Academia: Question Time
Women ask fewer questions than men at seminars. There is an easy fix.
ONE theory to explain the low share of women in senior academic jobs is that they have less self-confidence than men. This hypothesis is supported by data in a new working paper, by a team of researchers from five universities in America and Europe. In this study, observers counted the attendees, and the questions they asked, at 247 departmental talks and seminars in biology, psychology and philosophy that took place at 35 universities in ten countries. On average, half of each seminar’s audience was female. Men, however, were over 2.5 times more likely to pose questions to the speakers—an action that may be viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a sign of greater competence.
This male skew in question-asking was observable, however, only in those seminars in which a man asked the first question. When a woman did so, the gender split in question-asking was, on average, proportional to that of the audience. Simply handing the microphone to a woman rather than a man when the floor is opened for questions may make a difference, however small, to one of academia’s most intractable problems.