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Men at Work: Shhh!

Berk Ozler's picture

“Who can it be now?”

I turn my head around from my seat at the seminar table to see who it is this time that has interrupted the seminar speaker for the Nth time before she even got through her introductory slides: it was a man, of course. 

A lot of people at econ seminars get annoyed at questions that would have been answered naturally had the audience just been patient enough to wait for, sometimes literally, another slide; the back and forth that sometimes ensues between a questioner and the speaker; and, of course, the inevitable consequence of the speaker rushing through their results because too much time has been sent on answering questions.

[People from other disciplines are often gob smacked when they attend an econ seminar, where the culture of interaction often runs adversarial. I once had a public health colleague attend a seminar I gave at Berkeley, which was completely routine. After the seminar, she came up and asked me why the audience had been so rude to me: I explained to her that I did not consider them rude (still don’t), and that a healthy exchange was part and parcel of a good econ seminar, even if sometimes disruptive. Ah, youth…]

To deal with the timing and volume of questions for the recruitment seminars this year, David McKenzie and I recently suggested to our recruitment committee that we should perhaps have a 15-minute moratorium on questions – anything other than the most urgent clarification ones. The idea is not new – I am told that BREAD has started doing this at their conferences a while back – but our recruitment committee was happy to adopt the suggestion and we have now done this for 5-6 seminars. The response, from what I can tell, has been overwhelmingly positive: I have had people come by my office to say that the number of unnecessary early questions were clearly down. My sense is that it would be reasonable to consider extending this rule beyond the recruitment season for our regular seminar series.

[Interestingly, the 15-minute moratorium seems to throw some speakers off, who, naturally, expect to be interrupted. I have notices speakers stumble, search for a transition, after a slide – clearly expecting a question at that point, based on previous experience. We have also had a speaker stop and say, upon reaching slide 5 or something, that she had never reached that slide without being interrupted before. Relax, speakers: the floor is yours. Enjoy…]

Anyway, at the first job market seminar after we adopted the 15-minute rule, I was naturally watching a bit more closely – mainly to assess compliance. But, I noticed something else instead: the first 8 questions after the moratorium came from men. It should not be news that men ask more questions at seminars, but the skew seemed extreme. So, I started keeping stats, which looked like this:

MMmMMmMMFMMMMMM

Each letter represents a question by either a male or a female participant. Small letters are for follow-up questions – almost always by the same person.


Dividing the 90-minutes seminar into three periods, I summarized the stats after that seminar for colleagues in the recruitment committee as follows:

  • There was a total of 40 questions, meaning more than one interruption every other minute within the 75-minute period after the 15-minute moratorium.
  • Of these 35 came from men and 5 from women
  • My rough estimate of men/women in the room is about 1 to 2 (16 women and 32 men).
  • That’s about 1.1 questions per man and 0.3 per woman, but my guess is that most men (about two thirds) asked no questions. Same with women…

Turns out, of course, that this phenomenon has been observed in the wild before. A colleague sent this article from the Economist after I shared the stats, highlighting the following sentences from it:

"Men, however, were over 2.5 times more likely to pose questions to the speakers—an action that may be viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a sign of greater competence.

This male skew in question-asking was observable, however, only in those seminars in which a man asked the first question. When a woman did so, the gender split in question-asking was, on average, proportional to that of the audience.”

Pretty similar to our setting re: the male skew. And, again of course, this skew is not limited to econ seminars. Just this past Friday, The Letters Editors of the New York Times announced that women account for only a quarter to third of letter-to-the-editor submissions and that they want to change that (see the bottom of the page).

Intrigued by the fact that (a) there had seemingly been so many questions, but perhaps worse (b) men were more than three times more likely to ask questions, I decided to collect more data from the same seminar series. After all, this was only one seminar – was it really always like this? Here are the stats from the next two seminars, during which I collected the same data:

Seminar 2:

12:39-13:00: MMMFfMFFMmmMMFMMMM (5 F 13 M)
13:00-13:30: MmFfMmmMmMMmFMFMMFMmMmM (5 F 18 M)
13:30-14:00: MmMMMMFFMFMFMmMmMMmmFf (6F 16 M)

16 questions by women 47 by men, for a total of 63 questions. Seems less skewed, but the gender distribution was also more balanced that day, making the odds more or less as skewed as Seminar 1. A colleague noted that the likelihood of men asking follow-up questions is even more skewed – consistent with the hypothesis that men are more likely to enjoy the sound of their own voices. Notice the significantly higher number of questions and follow-ups…

Seminar 3:

12:45-13:00 – MmMmMmmMmMMMMMFMm (16 M 1 F)
13:00-13:30 -  MMMMmFMmMMMmMM (13 M 1 F)
13:30-14:00 – MMMFfMmMm (7 M 2 F)

36 questions by men and only 4 by women in a room where the male/female ratio was about 2/1.


All in all, very consistent across the board. And, once you see this, it is impossible to unsee. So, what, if anything, should we be doing about this? The climate, I think, is right for culture change right now: I work in a research department, which, after years of status quo, has recently made a conscious effort to diversify its hiring, has a Lecture Series which features all women speakers, and in an institution that has been making strides to reach gender balance in its ranks, including senior management positions.

I think that the answers (or, even better, questions) need to come from women, but I have one idea for men: hush.

If every man at makes a resolution before coming to a seminar to pause and ask themselves whether they need to ask that question before raising their hand, there will be more room for others, including the speaker, to speak. Of course, people reading this at the World Bank and other workplaces will immediately identify with the phenomenon at meetings, gatherings, etc. Men self-questioning quietly, rather than sharing whatever comes to their mind with the rest of us, can surely improve matters - probably at little cost.

A few other observations, as a result of lots of colleagues stopping by my office to share their thoughts about my fun seminar stats:
  • There is definitely a speaker fixed effect: Some speakers are much better at handling questions and moving on than others. But, it is not fair to expect the speakers, especially graduate students and junior colleagues, to confidently handle a large room. Chairpersons can either empower or protect the speaker as appropriate. Meaning that we may choose chairpersons not randomly, but purposefully from colleagues who can strike that delicate balance of allowing some healthy dialogue while keeping things moving and encouraging a more diverse set of voices.
  • What is the optimal number of questions at a seminar? It is true that the seminar with 60+ questions was much unrulier than the one with 40+. However, conditional on the number, some seminars seem to go swimmingly (we had one speaker finish 7 minutes early) while others are derailed (see the speaker FE point above). When I first counted the number and reported it, I thought that an interruption, on average, of every two minutes cannot possibly be optimal.
    • But, first, averages can be misleading in this context (many questions are bunched, followed by a few minutes of the speaker progressing through their slide deck).
    • Second, as a colleague suggested, think of the following thought experiment: suppose that you are having a long coffee with the job market candidate and she is telling you about their paper. You are so interested that you two devote 90 minutes for her to tell you everything about it. In that conversation over coffee, it is perfectly possible that you interject something every couple of minutes in the pleasant back and forth. While a seminar with a room full of different people is obviously different, it is not clear that the total number of questions per se is the problem.
I think a culture change in meetings and seminars is needed, although I am not sure exactly how we get there and whether there are any unintended consequences from any proposed remedies. Only some bold experimentation can tell. Thoughts are welcome – from everyone…