Published on Development Impact

Better conduct at seminars

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Last year around this time, I wrote a blog post titled “Men at Work: Shhh!” Mostly forgot about it until I was having dinner with some friends at the ASSA meetings in San Diego last weekend, when one of them said Özler (2019) was cited a couple of times at the session she was a part of. As we are in different fields of economics, I was surprised until she told me that the reference was to this blog post, which was cited as an example of tracking behavior at seminars. So, you can apparently do research by writing “MMmMMmMMFMMMMMM” on the back of a napkin, counting them diligently, and having the audacity to write a blog post about them the next day…

As the recruitment season is upon us again and we have seminars every day in the upcoming weeks, it is important to revisit the advice on how to behave at seminars. The profession has come up with good ideas recently, and it is good to reiterate them here.

First, while we have not been doing the numbers systematically, I don’t think that the ratio of men to women who ask questions has changed dramatically from last year, i.e. still very skewed towards men (even when done in proportion to their numbers at the seminar). My favorite solution – that men should think twice before asking a question (“does it really need to be asked?” “is the answer coming up in a few slides?” “is it better to ask this when I meet the speaker later in the afternoon?”), does not seem to have made it to the day-to-day consciousness of my researcher brethren. There was a paper last year that suggested that there is more balance in questions when a woman asks the first question, but I am skeptical of this due to heterogeneity – not even unobserved: female seminar speakers on a topic that is of larger relative interest to women than men can cause those effects, making the correlation seem causative. We might start planting “female first-questioners” randomly into seminars to find out…

The AEA has come up with really nice “best practices for conducting research,” which cites MIT’s suggestions for a constructive culture of exchange in economics seminars. A few highlights from these documents that I really like:

·         Allow presenters time at the beginning to frame their talk without interruption: We have been following the 10- or 15-minute (the latter if I am the chair of the seminar) moratorium on interruptions. This has now been accepted, and we allow neither clarification questions nor the speakers themselves to override the rule.

·         If you want to talk with another neighbor seminar attendee, take them to coffee afterwards: Even quiet sidebar conversations between participants rarely are as unobtrusive as intended, and distract the speaker and others in the audience.”

·         If you want to have a conversation with the speaker, we have a signup sheet for 30-minute meetings: A question or comment often leads naturally to some back and forth exchange with the speaker. But if you continue to be dissatisfied with a response, please don’t hold the talk hostage. Instead, allow the presenter to move on, and follow up offline.  Please make every effort not to interrupt or talk over the presenter or another participant.”

·         Raise your hand if you want to say something: This gives the presenter agency to mediate the discussion by calling on audience members, and avoids interrupting the presenter mid-thought, a courtesy that may be especially appreciated in job talks. If the presenter doesn’t see someone’s hand, the organizer can help by pointing that out.”

·         Organizers: “Please be prepared to intervene in real time if necessary to call attention to someone whose raised hand has been overlooked, to return the floor to the presenter, or to remind participants of our norms of courtesy and respect.”

Color me prepared. See you at a seminar soon…



Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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