The dreaded question period

The Q&A – arguably the most angst inducing part of one’s entire talk. Inevitably someone will raise their hand and ask a question which the speaker did not anticipate and which they are not prepared for. But who is that someone? On occasion, it is a young scholar, itching to make him or herself known by asking a smart question. Often, it is the senior (male) academic who is sitting in the front row and raises his hand after each talk. Where are the women?

At two recent conferences, I kept track of who was in the room: who were the presenters, what was the proportion of men to women in the audience, and who was asking the questions. The first, a small conference of about 50 participants, had a roughly equal proportion of men and women in the audience with only a handful more men than women. There were 12 male speakers and 12 female speakers. Across the different Q&As, there were a total of 66 questions asked by men and 25 questions asked by women. The second conference was larger, with roughly 150 participants, with a more skewed audience with only 35-40% women. The talk distribution similarly reflected this makeup of the audience, with 14 male speakers and 9 female speakers. The Q&A then featured 73 questions by men and only 13 by women. In both cases, the majority of questions were asked by senior scholars, the majority of whom are men. When young scholars raised their hands, roughly a third of the time, they were overwhelmingly men, as well.

While anecdotal, these numbers speak to a current trend in my field. Conference organizers are generally aware of gender biases and do a decent job of accepting both male and female speakers at encouraging numbers. They also almost always make sure to have both male and female invited speakers.* And yet clearly there is still a problem. To my dismay, it was not only among the senior scholars that men were overrepresented; that in itself would stem from the fact that senior scholars in my field more generally tend to be men. But among the more junior scholars and certainly among the students, women represent nearly half of our field. And yet very few young women raised their hands.

One obvious step that organizers can take to begin fixing this problem is to ensure that session moderators, and not the presenters themselves, field the question period. This takes the responsibility away from the anxious speaker, who may focus on the senior (often white, male) scholars in the front rows, and place it in the hands of the calmer moderators, who could be asked to be more aware of the entire room and of who has been given time to speak in previous sessions.

But a more pressing issue is how to get women to raise their hands in the first place. While there are certainly cases of women being ignored by a speaker, more often than not few or no women even attempt to ask a question. How do we address that?

As a young female scholar who is among those not currently being represented, I have tried to give this issue some thought. I must admit to being part of the problem: I rarely ask questions at conferences. Sometimes because I am unsure my questions are smart enough**, sometimes because I just need a moment to think and digest what I have heard, and often because I am simply uncomfortable with the entire situation. I try to challenge myself to ask at least one question at each conference***, but that doesn’t quite seem sufficient. Why am I so uncomfortable? More importantly, what would make me more comfortable?

I think I am uncomfortable raising my hand because people like me just generally don’t. I know that doing it myself would set an example for others, but often I am not that brave. Several colleagues have raised the option of having standing microphones at the sides of the stage as a possible solution****, as it would take away the prominence of the senior men in the front rows and leave it up to the order in which people get up to the mic. I agree that this might solve part of the problem, but it probably won’t make it go away. I can already imagine certain men queuing up after each and every talk, before they even have a question in mind. I can also imagine that the need to physically get up, walk over to the stage, and stand in line, may deter some women from putting themselves so visibly out there.

Another thought that I find appealing is the option of giving the audience a short break before the Q&A, to allow audience members to digest the talk and briefly discuss their thoughts with other colleagues, before returning to the room and asking questions of the speaker. I am unsure how this would be implemented at conferences, where there are often several talk+Q&A sequences before each break, but it could be a something to try at colloquia and other events with more flexible schedules. Yet another strategy that I have seen implemented at some venues, and again may be more appropriate to those occasions with more flexible schedules, is allowing the students and junior scholars in the room to ask their questions first, and only later turning to questions from the more senior audience members.

Finally, something else that I wonder about is using an electronic, written, system to collect questions and convey them to the speaker. Many talks at conferences in my field are already live-tweeted – why not also collect questions in much the same way? These days practically everyone in the audience has an internet enabled device with them, and internet is almost always provided by the venue (for those with no data plans). Could we use a dedicated platform to collect questions, to be read by the moderator, perhaps in conjunction with some questions delivered directly by audience members? I am sure that there are some logistical issues to be resolved, but I can certainly see underrepresented groups feeling more secure in submitting questions in writing, to be read by the moderator, than raising their hands or standing up and asking the questions themselves.

Have you encountered similar trends in your field? If you are a woman, are you comfortable asking questions at conferences and other talks? How would you go about encouraging more women, especially younger women, to participate more?


*Although a relevant issue that I will not discuss here is who gets invited: while the proportion of invited talks given by men and women is encouraging, the number of different women giving talks is still smaller than the number of men; some women get invited very often, and quite a few not at all.

** And more often than not I then feel like an idiot when someone else asks the exact same question!

***And to introduce myself to one new person, as well.

****Curiously enough, they are all men.

26 thoughts on “The dreaded question period

  1. We need to train all students to ask questions. I think I’ll start asking my lab group members to write questions after departmental seminars. We can discuss them at lab group meeting.

  2. Although not always possible due to the mad rush between presentation rooms, I try to sit near the front in the ‘confidence seating zone’. I’m more comfortable asking questions from the front than the back. I advise my young students to do the same at conferences.
    I recently attended a seminar talk and was impressed with their tradition of opening the floor for questions from undergrads, then grad students, and lastly faculty and guests. I like your idea of incorporating this approach into conferences.

  3. I am a junior woman in a male heavy field (though my entire discipline is more balanced, the field I am in is one of the most male heavy). I push myself to ask a question at every single panel/talk that I go to. It’s not always successful, but I really make an effort. As I listen to the talks, I jot down potential questions in the margins of my notes and then pick one based on my own interests and the questions that other people have asked. Often I end up asking multiple questions, because I have prepared for the Q and A during the talks.

    It took me a while to get to this state. But one thing that helped was observing male colleagues, particularly the one in my department closest to my own field (and I realize this is problematic – we should be seeking to change academia rather than just conforming to the white male norm). I always worried that my questions were silly or stupid. But then I realized that I could often predict the questions that this colleague would ask, because he had certain interests and perspectives in his own research and he had no qualms about asking about them. So I adopted this technique – rather than worrying about how the question sounded, I focused on what questions I could ask that made this panel productive and helpful for me. This really helped me approach panels differently and made me more confident in asking questions – and if you ask questions, then its easier to approach people to chat after the panel, and make new connections that lead to new panels that are centered around your shared themes and interests. In particular, I make a point of asking questions to female panelists, especially people still in grad school, and approaching them after the panel to follow up. While I myself am very junior in my field (just finished first year on the TT) this is my way of trying to change the very male norms of my field.

    I HATE the microphone idea. What about people who are elderly or have disabilities? As the post pointed out, I also hate the idea of having to walk in front of people, or squeeze out of a row of chairs – it puts the questioner even more on display, and it makes it hard to take notes on the answer if you are standing.

    • just BTW microphones *are* part of a disability accommodation for some people at conferences – folks with different levels of hearing may need the sound amplified. if audience doesn’t use mikes to ask Qs, it’s always best practice to have the speaker or moderator repeat the question into a microphone so that everyone hears it (and yes, moderators, make your speakers use their mics — if mike stands at podiums are too constraining, give feedback to organizers to go wireless)

      • Oh, I have no issue with mikes, just the having to get up and move to a mike that is set off to one side. I agree that is an excellent practice to have the speaker or moderator repeat the question into a mike so that everyone can hear it.

  4. Great post, thanks for raising this. We (by which I mean the people who produce scientific meetings and conferences) are making progress on “diversity at the podium,” but too often the rest of the meeting is still mired in biased (explicit and implicit) behavior and beliefs. I love the idea of giving people time to digest a presentation before Q&A – even without a break, they could just discuss it for a few minutes with the people they are sitting next to. However, most large scientific meetings are so tightly scheduled (and sessions are poorly moderated) that this isn’t likely to ever be implemented.

    I’ve long thought that session moderators need some training in facilitation – essentially, in how to ensure that opportunities for full participation are available to all audience members, with close attention to the impact of gender/age/race on who talks/asks questions the most. Moderators need to learn that it is ok to explicitly look past the line of white men at the microphone or with their hands in the air, in favor of giving women and underrepresented minorities a chance to ask questions. And by that I mean actually saying “Ok, we’ve had two questions from white men, so will take the next question from . . .” and then name or select a woman/minority who has a question. Or, if there are none at the mike or with hands raised, invite a question and then wait a moment until there is.

    I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a white male friend who was teaching his first advanced undergraduate seminar course, in mathematics. There was one woman student in the class, and she almost never spoke up. He was concerned because her exam grades were excellent, but class participation counted toward her final grade. My advice to him was, at least once in each class, to ask a question and then not allow any of the men to speak until she did – and to tell the class that he was doing this. I figured that what she was lacking wasn’t confidence, it was permission. It worked – she quickly started participating more in class without this “intervention” on his part.

  5. There are some good points here, aside from the usual white male bashing. To that point, it’s just stupid (and racist/sexist) to prevent more than X questions being asked by whites, men, etc until Y questions are asked by some other group to get some desired X/Y ratio. We should be moving further away from divisive identity politics not embracing them more and more. What happens when you’re in a field like psychology where women outnumber men by a considerable margin, should we shut the women up until men ask questions? It’s just silly.

    I get the desire for equal outcome in questions asked by gender, and it sounds like everybody is acknowledging that there is equal opportunity to ask a question. The multiplier to opportunity, though, is interest in taking a social risk (what if my questions aren’t smart enough?). Men, in general, are ok with taking greater risk (many studies, but here’s one I found with Google partly because they tend to diminish the probability and severity of bad outcomes in their judgments. Work around that without being sexist and you’re good. You can change some behaviors through coaching, but understand that you can’t change inherent gendered preferences universally. There were lots of good ideas already mentioned (such as electronically submitted questions – we do that in my org and they work great), so no need to repeat them all.

    • Could you point to any instance of ” the usual white male bashing” in either the blog post or the comments? You may be confusing observations and statements of fact with blame. White men aren’t to blame for having White male privilege. On they other hand, all of use with privilege (I’m White) are responsible for what we choose to do with and about that privilege. Responsibility, not blame.

    • I think it’s likely that men, in general, are more comfortable with risk because the consequences of those risks tend to be less severe for them. We apply different standards to members of different groups (see, e.g., working on the shifting standards model), so a woman’s question may need to be “smarter” (whatever that means) than a man’s question in order for the woman and the man to be perceived as equally smart. As another example, reactions to a man sounding dumb may be “that dude is not that smart,” whereas reactions to a woman sounding dumb may be “women in general are stupid and don’t belong in this field.”

    • I don’t think that there is any ‘white male bashing’ in this post nor in the comments or the blog more generally. If you truly think that, we are using very different definitions for the term, and it will be hard to have a serious conversation. I am also not seeing anyone (myself included) advocating for instituting a rule that would enforce a certain ratio of allowed questions from men vs. women. However, there are two things that are important to understand.

      First, it’s not entirely true that men and women get equal opportunities to ask questions, for example if the speakers/moderators have a tendency to defer to seniority and we accept that there tend to be more senior men in many field and women are more junior, or if the speakers/moderators simply ignore women and other minorities when they raise their hands, then women get fewer opportunities to speak. And if, as others have pointed out, the risks actually *are* higher for women, then again the opportunities aren’t equal.

      Second, the idea that we should “reeducate” women to take greater risks but in the end we should accept that men are somehow better suited for the Q&A environment because of how they perceive risk (so presumably we may never achieve equality, nor should we even expect to) is a very narrow-minded view. This post discussed some ways that we can help women raise their hands more often and how academic communities as a whole can encourage that. Other great ideas were suggests in the comments. It’s not just up to women to change — men, as the privileged party in this situation, have to actively participate in making the change, as well. Don’t you want an environment where everyone feels like their opinion matters and that they are welcomed? Several posters, myself included, said that they feel left out and uncomfortable. That is something that everyone should be aware of and strive to change. I do hope that you value contributions from all your colleagues equally, and that you want them all to feel welcome at professional gatherings. If your behavior contributes to an exclusionary environment toward others, at the very least you should be aware of that (the first goal of this post), and I hope that you would also want to change that (the second goal). Maybe it does mean that you learn to think differently about your role in your professional world, and that you change how you behave to leave more room for others, because you can acknowledge that some of your colleagues may face obstacles every day that you may not have ever faced. Our goal is to get you to see that these obstacles exist as a first step, and then we can have a better conversation about how to remove them.

      • And I quote:
        “Moderators need to learn that it is ok to explicitly look past the line of white men at the microphone or with their hands in the air, in favor of giving women and underrepresented minorities a chance to ask questions. And by that I mean actually saying “Ok, we’ve had two questions from white men, so will take the next question from . . .” and then name or select a woman/minority who has a question. ”
        That looks like a ratio goal to me although it didn’t literally say X:Y.

        Also, the idea that you’re going to change gendered behavioral preferences influenced by years of evolution is the narrow-minded view. Men do fear risk less than women, and this is true across many areas (social, physical, even gambling) – please check my link for those that disagreed. This is a fact and is unrelated to actual outcomes but to what men judge to be their probability of negative outcomes as well as the severity of those outcomes. It sounds like you want some men to not take the risk and ask a question because women won’t feel comfortable. Controlling the autonomy of others is never a good idea regardless of the “privilege” you assert exists. It creates animosity and I promise you it will hurt the greater goals of better female inclusion. Imagine telling taller basketball players that they can’t play or that they must take fewer shots instead of changing the rules around basket height. Always change the general rules to favor a behavior instead of limiting autonomy explicitly.

        More on “privilege”… Women are the majority in undergraduate institutions and the ratio is only growing. I just checked on graduate schools and there was a 2012 study showing that women earned the majority of doctorates for the 4th year in a row. Male privilege isn’t working so well. Also, it is certainly true that women dominate in certain graduate fields. Do women have “privilege” in those fields or does the numerically superior gender always have “privilege”? Is it white privilege? male privilege? female privilege? privilege of the most senior? If you can’t tell, I think the term privilege is an overused term (similar to other terms stemming from identity politics) and is often used unfairly and incorrectly. I know a male psychology graduate student who is clearly in the minority but is not even capable of receiving some of the female-only awards. Those incentives probably made sense years ago, but they’re still there. Does he have male privilege? I think it’s fair to say that seniority affects “privilege” and arguably numerical superiority, but I’m not sure anything else mentioned already is convincing. If the person managing Q&A is truly racist or sexist, even unknowingly or unintentionally, then I fully agree there’s an issue. That was mentioned above, but I don’t think that’s the main point here (correct me if I’m wrong). As an anecdote, I’ve been to several graduate Q&A in female-dominated fields where men were rarely called on. Take a walk over to the social sciences or health sciences.

        So, no, I don’t think we should shut men up for the sake of women (or women for men in the opposite circumstances). Simultaneously, I would love to hear from all sides and agree that the conversation is better when there is greater participation across the board. I’ve achieved proportional equality of outcomes in my org through electronic questions during talks. In fact, answering questions without naming the person pushed us to questions from a disproportionately female group (I managed the questions for several of the sessions so I know who asked). So yes, I certainly think we should try to change the process, and where possible, come to terms with the reason why to adjust behavior. Some posters have done the latter. One mentioned sitting in the front row and another mentioned jotting down potential questions during the talk. It’s not “reeducating,” it’s an honest look at what measures can be taken to successfully change behavior. That should be applauded. There are probably more ideas and why I said originally that there are good points here.

        • “Also, the idea that you’re going to change gendered behavioral preferences influenced by years of evolution is the narrow-minded view. Men do fear risk less than women, and this is true across many areas (social, physical, even gambling) – please check my link for those that disagreed. ”

          It’s presumptive to think that this is the reason behind the issue at hand. While it absolutely may be true that men in general fear risk less, and thus have an “natural advantage” in such social situations, it is not known if this is true for the populations represented in academia or specific fields. For example, it’s reasonable to think that women in male dominated fields are much less risk aversive than the general female population, or that that male PhDs are more risk aversive than the general population in some ways. For example, scientist have a strong habit of couching their statements in an irrefutable way, careful not to use phrases that are too assertive, etc.

          Bottom line is that you could be completely right, but unless someone actually starts to quantify risk aversion in this very small population of male and females (i.e. PhD level faculty), there is no way to know if this is an actual factor.

        • So, just because women are graduating undergrad at higher rates than men doesn’t mean male privilege isn’t a thing. First, it’s not true for all disciplines. Second, follow that down the pipeline to look at graduate school, jobs, pay rates, tenure rates, publication rates, startup budgets, full professorship, etc. There are disparities all down the line.

          This isn’t a space for you to argue about whether men have privilege. You can do that somewhere else.

  6. It seems like you were thinking of reducing bias in who gets called on and increasing questions from women as two separate things, but they seem linked to me. If I see that members of my group aren’t getting called on, I’m more likely to disengage and put my hand down, or not bother raising my hand in the first place. This is especially true if I’ve had my hand raised for a long time and the presenter is calling on a bunch of senior White men who raised their hands after I did.

    One interpersonal thing that might help is telling people when you think they’ve asked a good question. For people who are scared/nervous/shy about speaking up, this kind of affirmation can be incredibly confidence-building.

    • I’m not sure what in my post makes you think I view those two things as unrelated, but agreed, I believe that reducing bias in who gets called on would increase the number of audience questions from women (and other minorities), and vice versa.

      • The paragraph that started with “but a more pressing issue. . .” sounded to me like “okay, now we’re going to talk about a separate issue, the solution to which is unrelated to the first issue.” But I see that this isn’t anywhere in the words that you actually used — sorry I misinterpreted your meaning!

  7. I love this: “giving the audience a short break before the Q&A, to allow audience members to digest the talk and briefly discuss their thoughts with other colleagues”.

    We know from educational lit this works wonders for the quality of student questions (& discussion & learning). Difficult to implement but it seems it would help every talk have more impact with the audience. Isn’t that what we all should want?

    On a personal note, I used to be full of questions that I wouldn’t ask in the Q&A but instead would try to rush up to the speaker in the break to ask. Until I ended up injuring my leg the first day of a conference so badly I needed crutches and couldn’t rely on my normal strategy. I started hesitantly asking them from the back of the room, and in the process impressed someone *else* in the audience, who came to talk to me and ended up inviting me to give a talk at another meeting. Talk about learning a lesson the hard way, but I am certainly grateful for that injury that has turned me into a question asker!

  8. We definitely see this too and i have been counting at sessions for a while now. I did a survey in my dept having seenbthe same hapen in our local seminars and imposter syndrome reared its head as a reason people didn’t ask questions. Thus was true for both men and women. People also knew certain people would ask questions everytime. Interestingly several people found it much harder to ask questions in a local seminar than in an international conference because they knew there would be the possibility of memory in people who might be rating them for a job or phd. We did find that there were a significant number of senior academics who also found asking questions hard and we found people declaring this even anonymously (we have a big enough dept that we can do this ) very reassuring and encouraging.

  9. I can’t speak for other minorities, but women are certainly encouraged to constantly second-guess themselves from a very young age. I went to a women’s college that cross-listed many courses with a nearby coed university, and even in a class with 25 women and 3 men, guess who was doing all the question-asking? The men. I don’t think we want to bring other people’s voices down, but we need to bring our own up. The only way to be more comfortable with the terror of asking questions in front of people is to just do it, over and over again. Do it until the sting of exposure wears off. Sometimes you ask a question that DOES turn out to be kind of dumb. Keep asking them anyway. Most of the time they’re smart and thoughtful and encourage the discussion to go in a direction that it wouldn’t have gone otherwise– plus people get to know you as an engaged and interactive scholar.

    I could see how the tweet q&a issue could be helpful, and I could see how a short break in between the talk and the Q&A session could be useful for some people. But I think the better approach is to encourage ourselves, and each other, and junior scientists of all sorts, to just get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. The discomfort comes from a lifetime of socializing, so it’s ok for it to be there! But learn how to let it be there and to speak up anyway.

  10. I wish to comment about electronic screen-based questions – they seem to be a good idea, and I have been part of some initial trials (some years ago!!) to use them in meetings, with the idea of giving everyone a say. I find that there is so much busy stuff going on, things flashing on and off the screen when you are trying to concentrate on what you write that you never really get to work out what is being asked, what is being answered, and whether your question has already been addressed.

    I think that some solutions have been addressed already here. The previous “anonymous” above has it right – we just need to keep trying to encourage people to ask that question that is burning in their head. There is no “dumb” question – if you are puzzled about something or curious about something, then the speaker has not addressed it adequately in the first place and others in the room will also be puzzled or curious about it, and it is only being kind to the speaker to give him/her an opportunity to clarify the point (or to comment on your excellent suggestion for future follow-up of the ideas).

    And facilitators should be more aware of making sure that a range people in the room get a chance to ask questions.(Although this has to be done sensitively – just singling out someone because they are female or “another” ethnicity and asking “do you have a question” will NOT encourage them to ask a question, it will put them off totally. Don’t you remember being picked on in class to give an answer or comment when you were not prepared?). (I have no answer for this, but I am sure there are people who can advise facilitators how to do it).

    ps. I am talking theoretically here. Since the age of 4, I have always been the one in the front with the hand up and the very loud voice and the counter-intuitive opinion. I didn’t realise it was a problem, so just trying to imagine what would help.

  11. I just thought of something else we can all try. Those of us who take small group discussions of any type (lab meetings, tutorial classes, seminar classes – whatever you call them) can encourage everyone to discuss or ask questions. It ONLY works if you do it from week 1 of the semester, and if you have TA’s, that you make sure they all follow the same procedure. I did it with first-year non-science majors, by allocating 5% of the grade for “participation”, and asking a question – even a seemingly dumb question – was counted as participation (bribery always works). I found out the most amazing things that students had misconceptions about, that I thought were very clear in the text books and lectures but obviously were confusing to non-science students. ALWAYS if someone asked what seemed to be a dumb question, there were several others in the class with the same question who were not brave enough or articulate enough to ask it, but by knowing the problem we could sort it out. AND it gave others the confidence to ask a question next time. Hopefully these students became more confident to ask questions in seminars as they progressed through their careers, and the TA’s became more adept at being facilitators. Just a little thing we can do, which won’t provide instant answers, but may help change a culture just a bit in the future.

  12. Just wanted to add that I too have been very hesitant to ask questions during seminars. In part because there are competing factions in the department, in which the problem is approached from basically two different directions, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. I generally ambush the speaker after the seminar rather than raise my voice during the talk. There are also some who dominate the Q and A at the end. But this is something I’ve noticed in myself, and must begrudgingly admit has probably been holding me back.

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