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Why do Women Ask Fewer Questions?

I just asked a question. At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was an intelligent question, and  things definitely came out a little jumbled and long winded. Prior to asking the question, I dutifully did what I had been taught at Tufts, stating my name, my position, and my workplace first, so that the speaker would get to know my name. I was frightened as I lifted my pale pink dotted fingers, as the speaker was a high up government official.

Yet I was an intern at a big organization, and I knew that in order to make my mark, I had to be seen. I finally spit out the question, he answered it, and I thanked him.  

That afternoon I was surprised when an email popped into my inbox from the president of my organization – and it wasn’t the monthly newsletter. For a minute I thought it was an error; never before had he emailed me personally.  “The Canadian Justice Minister was really impressed by you,” he said. Great work.” I almost laughed. All I had done was ask a question. But a week or so later, when I requested to interview the Justice Minister for a project I was researching, he enthusiastically agreed.

What I didn’t know in that moment was that asking a question as a woman put me in the minority. A recent bevy of studies demonstrate that women ask questions at conferences and events at a startlingly lower rate than men.

One University of Cambridge study, published in September 2017, observed 250 events at 35 academic institutions across 10 countries. The study found that women are 2.5 times less likely to ask a question in an event than men- even when the audience’s gender ratio is even. Another study also showed a corresponding lack of female participation at scientific conferences. This one indicated that male attendees asked 1.8 questions for each question asked by a female attendee.

Considering women are outpacing men academically, earning more college degrees, masters’ degrees and postdoctoral degrees then men in the US, how is this the case? Are we that unsure of ourselves? In fact, the University of Cambridge study showed that in fact, we are.

Participants who didn’t ask a question were surveyed as to why. Women were more likely than men to cite internal reasons, such as “I was worried I had misunderstood the content,” “I couldn’t work up the nerve,” and “I wasn’t sure whether the question was appropriate.” Women were also less likely to view themselves as experts in the topic, and even considered themselves “not clever enough to ask a good question.”

This suggests a broader theme amongst far too many women- low self- esteem, lack of confidence, poor self image, and fear of failure.

That could be why a hesitancy to step forward is not only limited to asking questions. While I was Emceeing a women’s leadership conference this past week, a senior vice president at a major company opined about how in big meetings, the men would come in and instantly find a seat at the table, whereas the women would sit on the edges, around the periphery. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, the men were not in higher positions than the women, and there were no seating arrangements. Yet repeatedly, women took a seat in the background, as a receptionist or intern would. Then the conversation would center around the men. Finally, this woman literally started to pull women out of their seats to come sit at the table. Isn’t that ironic, considering how one of the main things the women’s rights movement fights for is a seat at the table?

Unfortunately, this hesitancy to step forward, ask questions, and speak out has a direct impact on women being seen as leaders, making public name for themselves, and building themselves up as thought leaders. Could this lack of willingness to participate in group settings detract as well from our propensity to be promoted?

Perhaps it is a contributor to the discrepancy that women are higher educated, but men are higher earners. Authors of the Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, remark that this hesitation is absolutely holding women back. “When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, even by skipping a few questions, we hold ourselves back.” Among other instances, they cite an example of a male partner at a company who did not promote a very competent women simply because she didn’t speak up in client meetings.

However, they posit, “when we do act, even when we’re forced to act….we do as well as men.” Meaningfully then, it is something that we as women can easily fix.

Here are some recommendations.

Raise Even when you don't know what to say

Remember, this is a question- you’re not supposed to know all of the answers beforehand. You don’t need cleanly laid out bullet points or evidence based research before you speak- that’s not your role, that’s the speaker’s. Even if your question is half formed at first, by the time you get to the microphone, you will have it formed. If it comforts you to write it down and read from a piece of paper or your phone, do that. If you ever need something to ask about, think about “where are the women and girls?” Bring a gendered perspective to the conversation, one that is often missing. Ask about things that women tend to think about – social impact, women in peace processes, education, conflict resolution techniques, women in leadership roles.

Asking a question gives you an opportunity to connect with the speaker. It also gives others at the event a topic of conversation with which to introduce themselves to you later, easing the awkwardness of networking. Furthermore, it actually statistically raises the chance that more women will ask questions after you. And as the confidence code authors point out, “underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in.” There’s a running joke that when women ask a question, they actually ask a question, whereas when men ask a question, they give their often unwarranted opinion. Conversely, the authors explain, “over qualified and over prepared, too many women still hold back.” Thus, I encourage all the women reading this to ask questions!

Take at the Table:

This also applies to taking your seat at the table. If you are given a seat, USE IT! Honor the women who are fighting to get at that table at every country in the world, in every government, in every peace process. The more you sit at the margins and don’t raise your hand, the more you will be treated as though you belong there.

At first, these type of actions will take you outside of your comfort zone. However, your muscle memory will slowly shift.  The more you take your seat at the table, ask questions, and use your voice, the more comfortable you will feel, and the more people will look up to you to be part of the discussion. This is key to transforming from a follower into a leader. You will also get positive reinforcement from others, in case you still think you sounded like an idiot.  Soon you will feel strange acting as you once did – sitting quietly on the margins. Channel your courage, and use it to lift yourself up as well as the women around you.

For Moderators, teachers, and speakers:

Diversify who you call on.

Pay attention to who you call on- and diversify the latter. In the University of Cambridge study, in addition to the aforementioned reasons, women were 11 times more likely to say that they didn’t ask a question because they worried that they would not be picked by the moderator. If a woman - or a person of color - observes over and over again that they will not be picked, or a person of color, they are getting the message that their opinion is less important than the person who is called on- and it will result in them staying silent. Whether or not you pay attention to them can have a dramatic effect on their self -confidence, even if it seems minimal to you. If you continue to pick men (even unconsciously) it sets the tone that only male voices matter- made even worse if the panel is overwhelmingly male.

Call on a woman first.

The likelihood of women’s participation increased when the first question asked was by a woman. The Cambridge study demonstrated that the likelihood of women’s participation increased when the first question asked was by a woman. If no women raise their hands, soften the crowd with a joke or words of encouragement. “There are no women out there who have a question? There’s got to be at least one.” Or, “are there any women in the room who have a question or could share their views on this? I’d like to hear your voices in this discussion. ” Hesitantly, women will start to raise their hands.

For Moderators, teachers, and speakers:

For the event planners reading this, there are also structural things you can do. The same University of Cambridge study showed that all of the below have a positive effect on women’s participation.

-Increase the number of women in the audience

-Increase the number of women on the panel

-Increase the number of female faculty or female leaders

-Include at least 10 questions in the Q+A

What was the big internal factor that women said would help them to dive in? Confidence. Thus, the next blog will focus on confidence – what it is, and how to get it.For now, as women, let’s stop worrying so much and just dive in. Your career – and the women’s rights movement- will thank you.

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Samantha Karlin