The Percentage of Questions Asked by Women at Academic Conferences Is Lower Than Attendance Would Suggest

According to a new study led by scholars at Stanford University in California, women asked questions at a level that fell well below their level of representation at two national genetics meetings over the course of four years. However, women’s participation increased when the meetings generated conversation among the attendees.

“I think a lot of the time we say the goal is to get representation across diversity,” said Natalie Telis, who was a Stanford graduate student when she carried out the work. She and fellow graduate student Emily Glassberg collected the data and were co-first authors on the paper. “If we want to create participation, representation alone won’t get us there.”

For their study, the research team analyzed hundreds of hours of videos from three years of genetics meetings. They also crowd-sourced 98 volunteers to collect data at the 2017 American Society of Human Genetics meeting. All together, they collected data on who asked questions from the ASHG annual meeting from 2014 to 2017 and the Biology of Genomes annual meeting from 2015 to 2018. They also gathered data on gender representation at ASHG overall and in the many subfields.

Across almost all subdivisions, each with vastly different representation of women, women asked fewer questions than would be expected. For example, in the field of Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues in genetics, women only asked 45 percent of questions but represented 67 percent of the attendees. Additionally, the research team found that women tended to ask more questions of women speakers, and men asked more questions of male speakers.

“I think there’s an idea that as soon as you reach proportionate ratios then the issues go away,” Telis said. “But no. We found that even when men were 33 percent of attendees, they asked 55 percent of the questions.”

At the 2015 Biology of Genomes meeting, Telis carried out an unplanned experiment. She tweeted some her findings from a session showing that women made up 35 percent of the audience, but only asked 11 percent of the questions. This sparked an immediate conservation among attendees, which led to the conference’s organizers implementing a rule that the first question in every session had to come from a trainee, a group that tends to be more diverse. This resulted in women asking a lot more questions, and that increase held steady throughout the 2018 meeting.

The research team hopes that this study will show that it is possible to improve women’s participation in STEM fields and inspires other people to measure the impact of potential interventions.

The full study, “Public Discussion Affects Question Asking at Academic Conferences,” was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. It may be accessed here.

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