Wednesday, 28 March 2012

C’mon sisters! Speak out!


When I give a talk, I like to allow time for questions. It’s not just a matter of politeness to the audience, though that is a factor. I find it helps me gauge how the talk has gone down: what points have people picked up on, are there things they didn’t get, and are there things I didn’t get? Quite often a question coming from left field gives me good ideas. Sometimes I’m challenged and that’s good too, as it helps me either improve my arguments or revise them. But here’s the thing. After virtually every talk I give there’s a small queue of people who want to ask me a private question. Typically they’ll say, “I didn’t like to ask you this in the question period, but…”, or “This probably isn’t a very sensible thing to ask, but…”. And the thing I’ve noticed is that they are almost always women. And very often I find myself saying, “I wish you’d asked that question in public, because I think there are lots of people in the audience who’d have been interested in what you have to say.”

I’m not an expert in gender studies or feminism, and most of my information about research on gender differences comes from Virginia Valian’s scholarly review, Why So Slow. Valian reviews studies confirming that women are less likely than men to speak out in question sessions in seminars. I have to say my experience in the field of psychology is rather different, and I'm pleased to work in a department where women’s voices are as likely to be heard as men’s. But there’s no doubt that this is not the norm for many disciplines, and I've attended conferences, and given talks, where 90% of questions come from men, even when they are a minority of the audience.

So what’s the explanation? Valian recounts personal experiences as well as research evidence that women are at risk of being ignored if they attempt to speak out, and so they learn to keep quiet. But, while I'm sure there is truth in that, I find myself irritated by what I see as a kind of passivity in my fellow women. It seems too easy to lay the blame at the feet of nasty men who treat you as if you are invisible. A deeper problem seems to be that women have been socially conditioned to be nervous of putting their heads above the parapet. It is really much easier to sit quietly in an audience and think your private thoughts than to share those thoughts with the world, because the world may judge you and find you lacking. If you ask women why they didn’t speak up in a seminar, they’ll often say that they didn’t think their question was important enough, or that it might have been wrong-headed. They want to live life safely and not draw attention to themselves. This affects participation in discussion and debate at all stages of academic life - see this description of anxiety about participating in student classes. Of course, this doesn’t only affect women, nor does it affect all women. But it affects enough women to create an imbalance in who gets heard.
We do need to change this. Verbal exchanges after lectures and seminars are an important part of academic life, and women need to participate fully. There’s no point in encouraging men to listen to women’s voices if the women never speak up. If you are one of those silent women, I urge you to make an effort to overcome your bashfulness. You’ll find it less terrifying than you imagine, and it gets easier with practice. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of it, but when a speaker sparks off an interesting thought, a challenging question, or just a need for clarification, speak out. We need to change the culture here so that the next generation of women feel at ease in engaging in verbal academic debate.


20 comments:

  1. This couldn't be more accurate, from my experience. After even my most fascinating undergraduate seminars you could hear a pin drop when it came to Q&A. In my first year I was *literally* the only person to ask questions in my (now you mention it - almost entirely female) class. This had a big effect on learning as there was always a minimum of 20-30 mins set aside for "discussion".

    In my second year I actually changed tutor group for this reason. My new class was far more engaged - and as we read all the seminar material and slides before class I found that I often learned more from the Q+A periods than the seminars themselves!

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    1. There was some organisational research showing that women tend to talk quite a lot less than men in meetings where both sexes are present - even though both sexes believed that exactly the opposite happened.

      Although that might be due to social expectations,it might also be that women's voices are generally not as loud as men's. I'm not used to public speaking and find it difficult to project my voice without sounding a) strident or b) Margaret Thatcher.

      There was also some research showing that women expect a better job performance from themselves than men do, suggesting that women might be more averse to asking a stupid question. Or a good question that is perceived as stupid by the speaker or the audience.

      I'm interested in theoretical models, so my questions after lectures have tended to be about implicit assumptions or alternative theoretical frameworks, rather than something like the composition of control groups. As consequence I've encountered the situation where there's a slightly awkward silence after my question because either the speaker hasn't actually questioned his/her assumptions; or they have done so, but aren't prepared to get into a theoretical discussion in the five minutes they have left. But the audience doesn't perceive the silence as occurring for either of those reason - what they hear is an embarrassed silence and assume I've asked a stupid question. At which point I always start thinking maybe I have.

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  2. One possible solution is for the audience to write down questions during your presentation ready for the Q&A session afterwards.
    Aside from the gender issue, it takes me back to an interesting article in the BBC magazine yesterday:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17510163

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  3. Paul: I think that's a great idea. Funnily enough I suggested it to organisers at a talk I gave quite recently, as many participants did not have English as a first language, so that was an extra reason for inhibition. But the chair felt it would be easier to take live questions, and what then happened was that one of the very few men present kicked off with three questions. They were very apt questions, but it was absolutely illustrative of what I'm saying. There was, in this case, still plenty of time for more questions, but only a few women chipped in. Then, after the end of the talk, women came up and asked me things.
    Part of me thinks we should try to institute practices like written questions to encourage women more, but part of me thinks women do just need to get a grip and start being more assertive. I think women academics, just like men, need to hone their skills in debate and thinking on their feet, and the way to do this is with live Q&A

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  4. This is interesting, and coincides with my experience. As a student I distinctly remember worrying that I was trampling quieter (often female) members of a seminar or lecture audience, and would endeavour to remain quiet. Eventually, though, I began to resent what felt like rudeness towards the speaker/tutor. Or even myself as the habitual questioner! If somebody asks for questions or discussion the audience is surely obliged to provide? This inevitably involves risking looking stupid, but isn't this the reciprocal politeness for the speaker undertaking just such a risk themselves?

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    1. I think the main thing that holds me back from asking questions is not the actual asking but being unable to formulate the question in a way that doesn't come across as stupid / arrogant / condescending / aggressive. There's also the worry that the question has already been answered in the talk and I wasn't paying attention! I wouldn't like to say whether or not these considerations are greater for women.

      The worst part about questions, though, is the silence after the speaker has responded to your question, but hasn't actually answered it - and you have to mumble something and pretend that they have.

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    2. Nice study waiting to be done here!

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  5. @Adam. Take your point, but often the speaker is someone who is on top of their field and members of the audience often aren't, so there's less risk of the speaker making an idiot of themselves. I think there's an array of causes here.

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  6. I agree, women should speak up! Also, we must make sure to evaluate contributions from both genders similarly. Because we don't. It's well known from science and debates.

    And from we are kids, people react differently to boys and girls, and expect different behavior. I read about a study in kindeergardens, which found that adults spoke less verbally (more nods, body language) to girls than to boys, and were much more eager to confirm boys when they spoke. And boys more easily got the adult's attention if they interrupted, girls had to wait more often.

    It's a social thing. Women starting to speak up is a good start, while we should also reflect over our attitudes, behavior and expectances towards men and women, girls and boys.

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  7. I have also witnessed conversations among women how they wanted to ask questions but felt it was inappropriate.

    Yet, psychologically, men are no less stressed out by speaking out in public than women. I still remember the pounding in my ears before I asked my first question of a speaker at a conference. I really wanted to ask it but I wasn't sure how relevant or appropriate it was. So I had to coach myself to get to a state of mind to do it. Sure, I was helped by the environment of gender expectation (but it didn't feel like it).

    So I wonder whether in addition to social hacks like asking for written questions (probably a good idea anyway) there is a need for some sort of a coaching system for women who need it that will help them more directly to engage in these kinds of debates.

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  8. This is such an interesting and important discussion for women, particularly women in science. I think we do ourselves a disservice by not speaking up and being more bold and "aggressive" with our commentary and questions. It is interesting to me that the majority of comments on this blogpost are being made by men too.... Are women reading blogposts less or are we choosing not to comment in online forums due to similar fears as those discussed here? As academic discussions move more and more to the blogosphere/online format, are women going to get left behind again, even though online settings could, in some ways, provide a safer environment for commentary than the environment of question time at a conference/talk?

    In seeking academic discussion in online forums/blogs/twitter, I find more often than not I am following a male scientist's posts than a females - it is inspiring to me to see strong female role models like you Dorothy creating a strong online presence as part of their career. Is it that women are less inclined to create an online presence or is it that they are chosing to do so anonymously/under a gender-neutral alias? As a young woman at the beginning of an academic career, I look around me and see few of my female role models presenting bold and assertive personalities in the public forum, I wish there were more.

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  9. Thanks Laura. One of the few advantages of growing old is that you do get less apprehensive of speaking out. It took me years to realise that you really can't please all of the people all of the time, and so if you do say something, there's bound to be someone who disagrees. I used to be very uncomfortable with provoking disagreement. These days, though, I regard that as a positive: you need to be exposed to contrary views, especially in science. It helps you to hone your own arguments if you are familiar with opposing views.
    Blogging, and commenting on blogs, can be harder for younger women, and some are nervous of internet trolls, who can be abusive and sexist. I've not experienced that. But I think if you choose your forum, there's a lot of fun to be had from debate in the blogosphere, as well as from debate in the real world, and I'm sorry so many women feel excluded from it.

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  10. Thinking about how to phrase questions might be helpful in engendering confidence that they will sound less "stupid". Asking for clarification or for the speaker to comment or expand on a specific point may feel less stressful.

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  11. Great post, I couldn't agree more!

    For years, I was one of the extremely shy women. I don't think I ever asked a questions after a talk during my PhD.

    I was able to change this to the opposite since I finally realized that not asking a question for fear of looking stupid means giving my own ego a very high priority. A higher priority than a potential learning experience for myself, the audience and the speaker. It is selfish and stupid, and not at all 'being modest', like I used to think of it! There is nothing more terrible than zero, or only 1-2 lukewarm boring questions after you have given a talk! So now I always try to think of a question, and often ask it, and that makes the talks much more interesting, and I pay more attention.

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    1. I couldn't agree more. Just wish there were more like you!

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  12. As a female in the early stages of academia, I overcome this shyness by letting my interest in the talk/seminar/speaker take over. The fascination with the talk or subject matter naturally guides my participation to question or challenge the speaker.

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  13. One further thought. I recently acted as stooge interviewer for a candidate who needed a mock interview for a prestigious fellowship. Two colleagues and I hammered at the candidate with really tough questions, because we knew that's what he could expect in his interview.
    Learning to handle questions and think on ones feet is part of the skill everyone has to develop if they want to survive in academia, so it can be argued that you are doing people a favour if you question them.
    I stress, this should not be antagonistic or disparaging. But just ignoring aspects of a talk that raise questions in your mind isn't doing anyone any favours in the longer term.

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  14. I think some people worry unnecessarily about admitting they don't know something. I have heard (and asked) some relatively uninformed questions at talks and have NEVER seen the speaker shoot the asker down like s/he was an idiot.

    I mean it's one thing to keep your mouth shut at a journal club when you didn't read the paper (that's just common decency), and it's probably a good idea to keep quiet if you have been completely zoned out (or *gasp* sleeping) during most of the talk. But if you have been paying attention and don't understand something it's probably because the speaker didn't explain it well, not because you are an idiot.

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  15. This is a great post. I've always noticed how female scientists/students ask fewer questions and when they do, it's often done in a more sort of half-apologetic way, whereas men are much more confident. One thing I'd like to add though, is that there is also the 'tall poppy' syndrome, where women sometimes don't ask good questions often because they're scared of looking like they're trying to be clever/domineering, etc.

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  16. Totally agree, lol I'm fairly sure I'm well known as being a little too outspoken as I'm not shy about asking questions at conferences (and am clearly in the minority as a woman), but I've always thought if I demonstrated the exact same behaviour and was male no-one would think twice about it. I daresay it's not just sexism from men that sometimes inhibits women from speaking up but also from other women...

    Also on the suggestion of having people write questions down, this is what I've done at our conference last year and will again this year- asked the audience to write their questions down and put in a box and then had a roundtable at the end where all speakers answer/discuss questions. I feel it got a much broader range of questions than just the usual verbal questions after each talk and also allowed for some discussion among speakers :)

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