The “leaky pipeline” of females represented in academic careers could steam from a stark disparity between male and female participation in departmental seminars.
Women are two and a half times less likely to ask a question in the seminars than men, an observational study of 250 events at 35 academic institutions in 10 countries has found – despite the gender ratio at the seminars being, on average, equal.
The researchers say it also reflects significant differences in self-reported feelings towards speaking up.
The research, led by a Junior Research Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, adds to a growing body of evidence showing that women are less visible than men in various scientific domains and helps 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 in Europe.
The bias, identified in a paper published in Plos One, 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,” warns lead author, Alecia Carter.
Carter and her co-authors also surveyed more than 600 academics – 303 female and 206 male – from 28 different fields of study in 20 countries and they were generally aware, especially the women, that men asked 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.
Women said “not feeling clever enough”, being unable to “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 women are not inherently less likely to ask questions when the conditions are favourable,” says Dieter Lukas, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge during the data collection.
Women were more likely to speak up, for instance, when more questions were asked, the researchers found. When 15 questions were asked in total, as opposed to the median of 6, there was a 7.6 per cent increase in the proportion of questions asked by women.
But when the first question in a seminar was asked by a man, the proportion of subsequent questions asked by women fell 6 per cent, compared to when the first question was asked by a woman. The researchers suggest that this may be an example of “gender stereotype activation”, in which a male-first question sets the tone for the rest of the session, which then dissuades women from participating.
“While calling on people in the order that they raise their hands may seem fair, it may inadvertently result in fewer women asking questions because they might need more time to formulate questions and work up the nerve,” says co-author Alyssa Croft, a psychologist at the University of Arizona.
The researchers were also surprised to find that women ask proportionally more questions of male speakers and that men ask proportionally more of female speakers.
“This may be because men are less intimidated by female speakers than women are. It could also be that women avoid challenging a female speaker, but may be less concerned for a male speaker,” said co-author Gillian Sandstrom, a psychologist at the University of Essex.
The study also reveals that twice as many men (33 per cent) as women (16 per cent) reported being motivated to ask a question because they felt that they had spotted a mistake.
Women were also more likely to ask questions when the speaker was from their own department, suggesting that familiarity with the speaker may make asking a question less intimidating. The study interprets this as a demonstration of the lower confidence reported by female audience members.
Carter says lasting changes are needed in academic culture to break gender stereotypes and provide an inclusive environment.