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.