An observational study of 250 events at 35 academic institutions in 10 countries conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge has found that women are two and a half times less likely to ask a question in departmental seminars than men. This disparity exists despite the gender ratio at these seminars being, on average, equal. It also reflects significant differences in self-reported feelings towards speaking up.
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The research added to a growing body of evidence showing that women are less visible than men in various scientific domains and help to explain the "leaky pipeline" of female representation in academic careers.
Women account for 59 per cent of undergraduate degrees but only 47 per cent of PhD graduates and just 21 per cent of senior faculty positions.
The bias identified during the study is thought to be particularly significant because departmental seminars are so frequent and because junior academics are more likely to experience them before other kinds of scholarly events. They also feature at an early stage in the career pipeline when people are making major decisions about their futures.
"Our finding that women ask disproportionately fewer questions than men means that junior scholars are encountering fewer visible female role models in their field," said lead author, Alecia Carter.
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In addition to observational data, researchers drew on survey responses from over 600 academics ranging from postgraduates to faculty members (303 female and 206 male) from 28 different fields of study in 20 countries.
These individuals reported their attendance and question-asking activity in seminars, their perceptions of others' question-asking behaviour, and their beliefs about why they and others do and do not ask questions.
The survey revealed a general awareness, especially among women, that men ask more questions than women. A high proportion of both male and female respondents reported sometimes not asking a question when they had one. But men and women differed in their ratings of the importance of different reasons for this.
Crucially, women rated 'internal' factors such as 'not feeling clever enough', 'couldn't work up the nerve', 'worried that I had misunderstood the content' and 'the speaker was too eminent/intimidating', as being more important than men did.
"But our seminar observation data showed that women are not inherently less likely to ask questions when the conditions are favourable", said Dieter Lukas, a researcher. The findings appeared in the Journal of PLOS ONE.