I recently attended a major conference in High Energy Physics called ICHEP. It was held in beautiful Bologna (Italy).
The conference is split in two parts, twelve parallel sessions run the first three days, there is one day break and this is followed by three days of plenary sessions. When wrapping up the first day, I realised that female participants in the parallel session that I was attending, asked very few to no questions.
ICHEP being such a huge conference (about 1000 participants), I thought I could be a bit more quantitative and run a little experiment.
Here is the setup, during the plenaries I tracked 14 talks, for each one I counted the number of questions and comments. I classified them in either in “Men” or “Women & Marginalised genders”.
Now, it is mandatory to understand the limitations and the perimeter of the experiment:
The auditorium was very large and I could not see the people asking the question. Therefore I inferred their gender based on their voice. This pattern recognition is by construction not free of errors and is based on my personal judgment.
The conference is very dense and intense, it may be that I forgot to track down a question or made a mistake when writing down the results in my notebook.
One could do have a more detailed approach and look at correlations (topics, gender of the speaker, native English speaker or not, etc.).
Have access to the gender distribution during the presentations.
Ideally more than one person would record the data.
If this were a complete analysis, one would find a way to asses a statistical uncertainties and systematic ones.
The outcome of this humble experiment is reported in the figure below:
The result speaks for itself.
We can ask ourselves why this is? A few things come to mind:
Censorship? Do women and marginalised genders think that their questions are not interesting or smart enough?
Imposter syndrome or legitimacy issues?
The way they were brought up to be nice and not make noise, "être sage comme une image” which in French literally means to be quite like an image.
I am fairly sure that to address this properly a deep change is needed in our system.
However, I am big fan of small incremental steps, so here is a little suggestion:
There is always the temptation of asking THE question that will demonstrate how smart you are, your ability to think fast, to digest quickly a huge amount of information, to grasp rapidly a complicated concept. Instead of waiting for this Holy Grail of question to pop in your mind, how about you let yourself be guided by your curiosity?
What it means in practice, you can pay attention during presentations you care about (this means closing all tabs on your laptop), as for the question or comment keep it simple and genuine.
It is exhausting to try to sound smart, being curious is much closer to our ground state. I am prepared to bet a good espresso cup that a fantastic domino effect will happen if we were to raise our curious voices.
I am grateful to my colleague Nicole Skidmore for thinking this through with me, I am also grateful to Dr Lindsay Warren for the discussions about gender.