WASHINGTON — Speaking up in a crowded setting can be tough for anyone. However, noteworthy findings by researchers with the Association for Psychological Science show that women attending academic conferences feel especially apprehensive about calling attention to themselves.
While these events provide key opportunities for academics to publicly present their work and receive feedback from peers during Q & A sessions, the research team found female academics are generally less likely to ask questions during these sessions. Study authors say their work suggests this trend may be due to anxiety among female academics regarding how colleagues will receive their comments.
All in all, the research team behind this study believes addressing these issues can help women working in academia contribute more proportionally to the scientific process. This project was conducted by lead author Shoshana N. Jarvis from UC Berkeley, as well as Charles R. Ebersole (American Institutes for Research), Christine Q. Nguyen, Minwan Zhu, and Laura J. Kray (UC Berkeley).
“More men participate in Q&A sessions compared to what we would expect based on who’s in the audience. When asked, men say they are more comfortable participating, and women are more afraid of experiencing backlash for their participation,” Jarvis says in a media release.
4 in 5 Q&A sessions start with men asking questions
For the first of two experiments, researchers analyzed recordings of 193 Q&A interactions that took place after 32 separate research presentations at a single-track interdisciplinary conference. Per attendees’ conference registrations, survey responses, pronoun listings on personal websites, appearances, and names, roughly 63 percent of attendees identified as men while 35 percent identified as women. The remaining two percent of attendees were excluded from this work because they identified as either non-binary or the researchers could not determine their gender.
Moreover, in agreement with earlier findings focusing on how gender influences conference participation, 78 percent of Q&A interactions began with men stepping up to the microphone. Meanwhile, women did the same only 22 percent of the time. Male attendees were also much more likely than their female counterparts to be among the first four audience members to participate in a Q&A session.
Notably, gender didn’t appear to significantly influence attendees’ behavior when scientists did choose to speak up and ask questions. Research assistants who were unaware of the study’s main purpose ended up rating men and women attendees as equally likely to challenge other researchers by questioning their expertise or the quality of their work. Males and females were also equally likely to engage in polite behaviors such as thanking a speaker for sharing their research or complimenting their work. However, academics were 24 percent more likely to be seen as polite when the speaker they were addressing was a woman, regardless of their own gender.
“When people are in power, they use that power to display dominant behaviors and disproportionately occupy space,” as has historically been the case with men in academia, Jarvis and the team notes. “Men’s dominance in Q&A sessions seems to be driven by their greater willingness to jump into the discussion rather than in how they communicate while at the microphone.”
Female academics experience more anxiety
The second experiment saw study authors polling various researchers and academics via email for six months after attending a psychology conference in the United States. A total of 234 conference attendees (69% women, 28% men) completed the surveys. The other three percent were excluded due to either being non-binary or choosing not to disclose their gender.
Generally, female participants reported being both less comfortable participating in Q&A sessions and more likely to fear experiencing professional backlash if they did choose to speak. While men and women were also equally likely to report holding back questions, they gave different explanations for doing so. Women were more likely to cite anxiety, while men usually kept quiet to allow other people time to ask questions.
“While we expected men to ask more questions than women, we were surprised to learn that men report holding back questions to make space for other people. Despite this level of self-awareness, it does not seem to be enough to mitigate the collective gender differences,” Jarvis explains.
Moving forward, further research could continue this important work by investigating if race and other identities potentially influence conference attendees’ willingness to participate in Q&A sessions, and perhaps even more importantly, what changes could help mitigate gender differences when it comes to participation.
“By understanding the psychological barriers impacting women’s participation in Q&A sessions, we set the stage to begin work toward structural changes that would create a more equitable space for scientific discourse,” the researchers conclude.
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.