Who’s asking the questions?

Woman asking questionHow can it be so difficult to ask a question? And why are men almost twice as likely to do it than women?

It’s the end of a research talk. You are easily the second most qualified person in the room after the speaker. A question comes readily to mind. And yet… somehow… your arm remains by your side. Before you know it, six men have asked ‘questions’ that demonstrate either that they weren’t listening or want to talk about their own, not necessarily relevant, research. Afterwards you berate yourself for yet again not raising your hand. How can it be this hard?

The fear does not necessarily diminish with age or seniority. In April 2014 I decided to go for it at a climate change meeting. As I raised my hand, my heart pounded. I mumbled my question into the microphone, having to restart at least once. To this day I can remember neither the question I asked nor the answer, only the panic and flight-response to the adrenalin surge. I was not an early career researcher. I had been a climate scientist for 20 years and was a professor of climate physics.

Safely back in my office, I wondered why I continued to feel this way. Was it just me? And was it down to me or was something else going on? I started counting and, at almost every subsequent meeting, the men asked more questions than you would expect given the gender balance of attendees. Whilst there has been much recent attention on diversity of speakers, the gender balance of those asking questions seems to be more persistently skewed. Whilst I have no doubt that in some cases, chairs or indeed speakers may be consciously or subconsciously favouring men, it was obvious in the meetings I looked at that women weren’t even raising their hands. A session chair can’t pick women if none volunteer.

And this issue is widespread. At an astronomy conference in 2014, women were under-represented amongst questioners compared to attendees. At a conservation biology conference male attendees asked 1.8 questions for each one from a female attendee even after counts were adjusted for the gender balance of attendees. The reason why this is happening is however missing from many of these studies.

Possible explanations involve a lack of confidence and links to studies demonstrating girls being less likely to engage in class at school. An age effect has also been considered: senior scientists are more likely to ask questions, but are also more likely to be male. However, the biology study found similar gender-based differences for early career researchers, suggesting that this is not purely an age effect.

In 2014, we surveyed staff and PhD students across our world leading, research intensive, physical science department. Fear of appearing ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’ or of ‘being found out’ was the primary reason people didn’t ask questions. Though this was slightly more important for women and early career researchers, there were a surprising number of senior staff thinking the same thing.

But why does it matter who asks the questions? Asking questions is a good way to raise your profile in the community, although people who blatantly only ask a question to advertise their own work do not end up with a good reputation in the end because everyone can tell the difference. The main intent when asking a question should be to contribute scientifically or to learn, so by not asking questions, both you and the rest of the audience will miss out on that learning. It’s also good practice for the times when you are up on stage – experiencing being the questioner helps you understand how to best answer questions.

So how can you become better at asking questions? Here are my five steps to getting there.

Practice. It might be easier to start in more informal or local environments (though I personally find it harder to ask in my department as my imposter syndrome kicks in when I know that I am going to see these same people every day!). Challenge yourself to raise your hand in at least one Q&A session for each meeting.

Plan. Go to talks where you are already confidence in the subject matter, or where you already know the speaker. Have a draft question ready, but also be flexible in case it is answered sufficiently in the talk and asking it would seem odd. However, don’t spend the whole talk stressing about asking a question as you’ll miss the content of the talk and won’t benefit from it.

Position. Sit somewhere accessible and consider wearing something either colourful or easy to describe – moderators can sometimes struggle to describe who the microphone should go to (in my field, ‘man in the checked shirt’ sometimes describes about 90% of the audience).

Remember. You are not alone – our survey showed that very often other people are wondering about or confused by the same thing you are. If someone else asks the question you have in mind, remember this as evidence that your question was a smart one and give it a go next time.

Be kind to yourself. If it doesn’t happen this time you haven’t ‘failed’ in asking questions. The situation may well be beyond your control (over-running speakers, talks that are so clear or so incomprehensible that forming a question is impossible). Also, asking questions is not the only way to contribute scientifically or enhance your reputation. Approaching a speaker in the coffee session and/or following up with an email are also good options.

Finally, if all else fails try imagining the rest of the audience as watermelons. I don’t know why, but my 11 year old says this works for him.

What works for you?

By Ellie Highwood

Ellie Highwood is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, having been a Professor of Climate Physics there since 2011. She is now a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant and a Leadership, Career and Life Coach.

Posted in Growth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *