Assertively Asking Questions

Different sources pointed me towards a paper appearing on the Arχiv this week discussing when and why men and women ask questions after a seminar presentation. A brief write up even appeared in The Economist, a sure indicator that a piece of academic research has resonated way beyond its home turf. Asking questions at the end of a public talk (seminar, conference and so on) is bread and butter in academia. For some people it seems to come naturally, be it the elderly professor who looks like he’s slept through the entire talk and then asks a killer question, or the confident new hire who asks a question at every seminar all term whether it is appropriate (or pleasant) or not. However, other people – myself included – don’t find it so easy.

I’ve said this before: asking questions at the end of talks is one of the activities that (still) makes me most nervous. However, I have also noticed that if I am chairing a seminar or conference talk, so that it is incumbent on me to be ready to fire off a question or two if there is silence from the floor, I have no qualms. At one level this makes no sense: a question is a question is a question. But my physical reaction does not indicate my body or brain think this is true. Internally I feel I have carte blanche to be challenging when I’m in the chair, but not otherwise apparently. As the Arχiv paper makes clear, we all will have internalised gender role stereotypes including about what constitutes an appropriate level of assertiveness. If asking questions carries the implication that one is stepping beyond an acceptable level of this for one’s gender, then the inference would seem to be that one shuts up.  Whatever anyone may think when they meet me about how assertive my behaviour is, it would seem that I too have internalised this gender stereotype when it comes to asking seminar questions.

The lead author of the paper I’m referring to, Alecia Carter, is a former Junior Research Fellow at Churchill College, and the last time I heard her talk was in the College and it was about primates; specifically it was about foraging and the dissemination of social information amongst baboons based on work in the field in Africa. It could be argued she is still working hard on primates, even though you may not consider a seminar audience in that light. Indeed, as was said to me, her work continues to be about ‘display behaviour in male primates’.

Her research, along with her three international co-workers, studied what the pattern of questions at the end of a talk was. They used observations ‘in the field’ at seminars in Cambridge and elsewhere, across 10 countries and 35 institutions in total. What they found was that by and large men asked proportionally more questions (i.e. after allowing for the percentage of men and women in the audience) than women. However, perhaps most interestingly, she also found that if a woman asked the first question then other women were far more likely to join in. Again, this looks like a case of ‘permission given’, the title I gave to my earlier post. A role model of a woman asking the first question appeared to make it easier for other women to chip in and ask additional ones. Indeed, if a woman asked the first question then essentially the questions distributed according to the gender split in the audience; if a man asked first, the questions were skewed strongly in favour of men. The team also explored the reasons given for not asking questions. Women, far more than men, were likely to say they couldn’t ‘work up the nerve’ or that they weren’t ‘clever enough’. Men suffered from these anxieties much less, demonstrating why they felt much more confident to ask.

It is clear that the authors were hoping to come up with not only insight into what was going on, but what might help to turn things around. They postulated that allowing longer question time might give women more time to get their courage together to open their mouth. The two occasions when they tried to manipulate the situation to provide this extra time, though, this didn’t seem to happen. The crucial thing seems to be, the clear message that session chairs should bear in mind, is that giving the woman the microphone first may make all the difference to the women in the audience. And if those women find they can ask a question and the floor doesn’t open up and swallow them, it can only aid their development as researchers.

It is interesting that a single lead-off female role model makes such a difference. In careers more generally, the evidence supporting the importance of role models is actually quite sparse, whatever anecdote may suggest and however much younger women swear that meeting or seeing Dr Jane Doe was really important in providing inspiration to them to keep on keeping on. But in this specific, carefully studied example it seems clear that a real difference was being made by a woman kicking question time off as a role model. Will seminar organisers and hosts take note? It would be a very interesting turn-around if they did, but it will still require that first woman to pluck up her courage and stick up her hand.



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2 Responses to Assertively Asking Questions

  1. Bill Harvey says:

    I’m sure it isn’t true that men “suffer from these anxieties less”. They have been taught from birth that admitting any sort of weakness is “unmanly” and indeed, they must demonstrate that they do not so suffer.

  2. Jessie Monck says:

    Really interesting, and hopefully speakers, chairs, facilitators can take note. Another tip I use is to consider having a ‘plant’ to start the Q&A, i.e. a trustworthy colleague to start off the questioning. This can be good for both the speaker (to feel confident in knowing the first question), and could be combined with the above (if the plant is a woman) to allow more women to follow with comments or questions.