Women ask fewer questions than men at scientific conferences

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published October 17, 2017

Key Takeaways

For every question women asked at a scientific conference, men asked nearly twice as many, even after accounting for audience gender ratio, according to new research published in PLOS One.

“Whilst question-asking has been little studied at conferences, the topic of gender differences in ‘speaking up’ and participation in a classroom setting has been of great interest to the academic community for several decades,” wrote Amy Hinsley, PhD, research fellow at the University of Oxford, Oxford, UK, and colleagues. “Reviews of published studies have found that, overall, women participate less often and with lower confidence in the classroom.”

For this study, Dr. Hinsley and colleagues wanted to find out whether the same holds true for women’s participation during question-and-answer sessions at a large scientific conference. The researchers observed 31 sessions at the 4-day International Congress for Conservation Biology in August 2015—a conference designed with the goal of reducing inequality and discrimination using a clear code of conduct. During the Q&A sessions, the researchers counted how many questions were asked by both women and men.

Even after accounting for the gender balance in the audiences, they found that men asked 80% more questions than women.

“In a hypothetical room with an even balance of men and women, 64% of questions would be asked by men,” Dr. Hinsley and colleagues wrote. “Therefore, for each question asked by a woman, each man asks on average 0.64/0.36=1.8 questions.” Even among younger researchers (under age 50), men asked significantly more questions than women.

“Our results provide evidence that women continue to participate less than men in professional academic settings,” the authors wrote.

The implications of this finding go beyond simply getting an answer to a question, the researchers indicated.

“Participation at academic conferences is likely to be important, as conferences provide opportunities to build reputations, establish and maintain professional networks, and develop international collaborations,” the researchers wrote. “As self-promotion and behaviour are also important in building academic reputation, the behavioural differences we have described could contribute towards the underestimation of female scientists' abilities, and their overall reputation.”

One possible reason for the disparity: It may show that men are more willing than women to show their competitive streak, and that men use questions as a way of competing with others and showcasing their own knowledge and work.

“However, whether driven by competitiveness or other factors, the act of asking a question is linked to higher levels of self-confidence, with lower confidence linked to a desire for self-preservation that makes question asking less likely,” the researchers wrote.

Previous research has shown that men are more likely to be invited to speak at conferences, which is likely to lead to them having a higher social reputation than their female peers,” Dr. Hinsley said. “If women feel that they are low status, and have suffered discrimination and bias throughout their career, then they may be less likely to participate in public discussions, which will in turn affect their scientific reputation. This negative feedback loop can affect women and men, but the evidence in this study suggests that women are affected more.”

Given women’s lower average self-esteem, “science should make concerted efforts to produce equal gender participation,” the researchers concluded. “There needs to be a broader and more coordinated approach to understanding and addressing the barriers to women and other underrepresented groups in STEM.”

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