Nav: Home

Men ask most of the questions at scientific conferences; we can choose to change that

June 27, 2019

Even in a majority-women audience at an academic conference, men ask questions most of the time, researchers report on June 27th in The American Journal of Human Genetics. After analyzing participation in Q&As at the American Society of Human Genetics and Biology of Genomes conferences over four years, the study authors found that public discussion and policy change focused on gender equity can make a significant difference.

"When women are 70% of a room, they still asked only about 40% of the questions," says Natalie Telis (@NatalieTelis), then a graduate student at Stanford University. "At that rate an audience would need to be 80% or 90% women before question asking would be split evenly between men and women."

Telis was inspired to study Q&A participation after a conference she attended as an undergraduate. She asked one question, but every other question she heard that day was asked by a man. To determine whether the ratio of questions asked was representative of the gender makeup of the audience, Telis and co-author Emily Glassberg (@ecgberg) recorded data about who asked questions after presentations they attended at seven conferences.

When Telis shared some of their findings online during a conference in 2015, it immediately sparked conversation and a policy change: the first question during every Q&A would come from a trainee. The following year, the conversation had quieted, but the policy remained, providing a classic experimental setup.

At the 2017 meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, data were collected through a crowdsourced approach. Any conference attendee could record data about who was asking questions after the presentations he or she attended. Recorders' data overlapped but didn't exactly match--some recorders may have left mid-Q&A or missed a question while recording data for the previous one, for example. Telis and Glassberg had to reconstruct the series of questions and found a solution in the tools of computational biology.

"We thought, we're trying to figure out a sequence, and we have some broken up chunks of that sequence. That sounds exactly like sequence alignment," says Telis. "We ended up creating this modified approach where we would align evidence for a question by time."

Telis and Glassberg used both the program genderizeR and U.S. census data to infer the gender makeup of the audience and presenters. Although this work focuses on representation across a simple binary, the authors acknowledge that future work should analyze effects from self-reported gender identity, race, ethnicity, and other demographics.

Telis has already seen the positive impact of her work. "I had tons of people tell me or tweet at me that they asked their first questions after hearing about this work," she says. Their study may provide a framework for future research about representation in the scientific community. "Making a choice and then evaluating its contribution to change is a critical part of experiment design. I hope that this is the start of a longer trend of us asking questions about the genetics community we want to create and how we create it."
American Journal of Human Genetics, Telis, Glassberg, Pritchard, and Gunter: "Public Discussion Affects Question Asking at Academic Conferences"

The American Journal of Human Genetics (@AJHGNews), published by Cell Press for the American Society of Human Genetics, is a monthly journal that provides a record of research and review relating to heredity in humans and to the application of genetic principles in medicine and public policy, as well as in related areas of molecular and cell biology. Visit: To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact

Cell Press

Related Biology Articles:

Structural biology: Special delivery
Bulky globular proteins require specialized transport systems for insertion into membranes.
Cell biology: All in a flash!
Scientists of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have developed a tool to eliminate essential proteins from cells with a flash of light.
A biology boost
Assistance during the first years of a biology major leads to higher retention of first-generation students.
Cell biology: Compartments and complexity
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich biologists have taken a closer look at the subcellular distribution of proteins and metabolic intermediates in a model plant.
Cell biology: The complexity of division by two
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich researchers have identified a novel protein that plays a crucial role in the formation of the mitotic spindle, which is essential for correct segregation of a full set of chromosomes to each daughter cell during cell division.
Cell biology: Dynamics of microtubules
Filamentous polymers called microtubules play vital roles in chromosome segregation and molecular transport.
The biology of color
Scientists are on a threshold of a new era of color science with regard to animals, according to a comprehensive review of the field by a multidisciplinary team of researchers led by professor Tim Caro at UC Davis.
Kinky biology
How and why proteins fold is a problem that has implications for protein design and therapeutics.
A new tool to decipher evolutionary biology
A new bioinformatics tool to compare genome data has been developed by teams from the Max F.
Biology's need for speed tolerates a few mistakes
In balancing speed and accuracy to duplicate DNA and produce proteins, Rice University researchers find evolution determined that speed is favored much more.
More Biology News and Biology Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at