The M:F ratio of asking questions at talks

Yesterday I attended a seminar and I noticed that at least 75% of the audience were women. The speaker was a man, and so was the person who introduced the speaker*. After the talk, there was time for a couple questions and the three people who asked something were men.

Overall score: a room full of women and all the people who opened their mouth to speak were men.

I know what it is like to be in an audience, and wonder if the question you might have is one worth asking. The time to make this decision is short and before you know it someone else asks their questions or the time is up for anyone to ask a question. But my advisor encouraged us in a somewhat strange way to ask questions: after the speaker was finished, she would point at one of her grad students and say:"now you have to ask something.". The first time this happened to me I was obviously caught off guard and was barely able to utter something resembling a question. Yikes. But the next time, I knew this could happen to me and ever since, I've trained myself to just have some questions ready in my head to ask. This may seem ridiculous, because if you don't have something to ask, why try and come up with something. But to me, it's been good training in coming up with good (and sometimes not so good) questions. So that when a talk ends, I don't have to hesitate, but I can put my hand up and ask something. Sometimes because I actually want to know the answer, and sometimes to be visible to the speaker or others in the audience.

Do you see the same? That women are less likely to ask questions? And if so, what do you do encourage them to ask something?


*I had never before seen someone so good at highlighting his own achievements while introducing someone else by the way. A remarkable skill in itself.

9 responses so far

  • astro_jw says:

    This is something that's come up and been studied in astronomy. Unfortunately, what you've observed doesn't seem to be an outlier: when looked at at two American Astronomical Society meetings (our largest event of the year, parallel sessions and plenaries), the UK National Astronomy meeting (similar, but smaller crowd), and a smaller sub-field specific meeting, the same thing was found.

    They also found that there are correlations between the gender of the session chair, the number of questions asked, and the gender of the first questioner, and the overall fraction of questions from women.

    Analyses and links to some of the data are here: (includes a link to the arXiv paper)

    As far as I know the results from the second AAS meeting are not yet public.

  • I have seen this many times! It's exactly the focus of the excellent site called "Informed Opinions" whose mission is to amplify women's voices.
    Women are often more likely to assume that we are "not the best person" to ask that question, apply for that job, speak at that conference, answer media questions - even when we are! Men are far less reluctant to step forward, even when they are quite clearly NOT the "best person". Informed Opinions is trying to address this common reality - check it out!

    Thanks for this...

  • DJMH says:

    Wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I often ask a question after a talk, not necessarily because I think I have a brilliant question, but because otherwise all the questions will come from men.

    And being in the practice of "If I *had* to aska question after this talk, what would it be" is the single best way to keep your mind focused on understanding and synthesizing the speaker's work. Everyone should try to do this.

  • JL says:

    Really DJMH? Ask a question only so that a woman gets to ask a question? Should I ask a question only to make sure there are Latino questions? And an Asian question? An African-American questions? An LGBT question? A New Investigator question? How about a question from whoever travelled furthest to get to the meeting? Anyone with a headache deserves a question too.

    It's great to develop techniques to get more confidence for asking questions, and better questions. Asking just to as?

    • First of all, a question should be a good question no matter who asks it, otherwise you're wasting the time of the speaker and the entire audience.

      But it should also be a question, i.e. not something that starts with "In my experience..." During my presentations, I've observed that these rambling self-promotional non-questions almost always come from men (not women) -- reminding me of the great advice I heard recently on how to ask a question at a conference: "If the event organizers had actually wanted to hear about your experience, then YOU would have been the invited speaker."

      I'm hoping that DJMH doesn't stand up and do the rambling non-questions I hear from some of the men in my own audiences. And yes, if a Latino or Asian in the audience has a good question that's germane to the topic, they should definitely jump in, too - but that is not the point here. The point of this essay is specifically the well-known reluctance of women to participate in a public forum setting.

  • JL says:

    No doubt it is important to address the reluctance of women to ask questions in public. Same with cultures that do not like or emphasize members sticking out. We all win when everyone participates. My comment was only to the suggestion of asking just to balance the scoresheet.

    • Agreed. And if this essay had been about the cultural reluctance of certain other groups to stick out, your response would have been appropriate. Again, this particular essay is indeed specifically about "the reluctance of women to ask questions in public."

  • postdoc says:

    I'm a woman who has never had a problem asking a question at a talk or in a class lecture (yeah, in front of 300 people). Of course, I get "punished" by being regarded aas too aggressive/dominate/pisk your word for not fitting into a woman's place

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