Monday, 19 November 2018

The gender gap and question time in academic seminars

The sources of the gender gap in STEM (and economics) are probably many and varied. However, one potential source that has been highlighted is the lack of role models (see my post on the topic here). If female senior students don't have female academic role models, then they be less likely to pursue an academic career, and if female junior faculty don't have female senior faculty role models, they may be less likely to succeed.

A recent paper by Alecia Carter (University of Cambridge), Alyssa Croft (University of Arizona), Dieter Lukas (University of Cambridge) and Gillian Sandstrom (University of Essex) looks at one example of role modelling - the asking of questions in academic seminars (with a nice non-technical summary on the LSE Impact Blog). Specifically, they collected survey data from 509 academics (mostly in biology or psychology), as well as observational data from "247 seminars, from 42 departments of 35 institutions in 10 countries".

They found that:
...a given question after a departmental seminar was more than 2.5 times more likely to be asked by a male than a female audience member, significantly misrepresenting the gender-ratio of the audience which was, on average, equal.
So, even after controlling for the gender make-up of the audience, and the hosting institution, and the gender of the speaker, men were more than twice as likely to ask questions as women. They conclude that:
[i]n the case of academic seminars, then, the fact that our data show women asking disproportionately fewer questions than men necessarily means that junior scholars are encountering fewer visible female role models in the field.
An interesting aspect of the paper is that they tried an intervention to increase the number of questions from female audience members. They first noted that there were more questions (and more questions from women) when the time allowed for questions was longer. They then manipulated some seminar lengths to allow for more time for questions. However, the intervention had no effect on the number of questions asked by female audience members.

Having read the paper though, there was an alternative intervention they could have tried. The number of questions from female audience members also appears to be higher when a woman asks the first question (even if you exclude the first question from the analysis). So, a simpler intervention would have been to ask the seminar moderator or chair to ensure that a female audience member asks the first question (if possible).

I've just gotten back from a conference in the U.S. I can't say I noticed a gender disparity in question asking there, but then again I wasn't looking. I'll definitely be paying more attention during departmental seminars and conference sessions in future.

[HT: eSocSci]

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