The representation of women in phonological discussion: Data from SCAMP 2016

From Stephanie Shih 
Here is the gender report from the recent meeting of California phonologists in SoCal (SCAMP), run by Eric Bakovic at UCSD, 8-9 April 2016. I’m posting it here in order to foster continuing discussion on the representation of women in phonological discussion: see original post by Joe Pater, with a great comments section, here:

The conference was a regional one, with a friendly crowd and relatively informal atmosphere, and it was fairly gender balanced when I sampled the attendees towards the end of Day 1. (The missing data point is my own talk, for which I forgot to take down Q&A notes.)

There was at least one interesting observation to note. We started out with a pretty decent gender balance in the Q&A’s, with female question askers going first in both of the first two talks. Then, before the third talk, there was an announcement that explicitly asked graduate students to ask questions. I think many of the faculty took this to mean that we should allow graduate students to ask the first questions before jumping in. While this did definitely increase graduate student participation, which is a good thing, it has an interesting unintended consequence: the gender of the question askers started to skew towards male. In fact, throughout the entire conference, not a single female graduate student asked a question.

I suspect this effect might be due in part to reasons discussed before, in Joe’s post and comments, which is that women–especially young female academics–want to make certain that they have a really good question before asking, which takes longer and so they are less comfortable going first. At the beginning of the second day of talks, I specifically approached a dissertation-stage female graduate student to encourage her to ask questions, and she confirmed this anxiety.

Suggestions for how one might encourage more gender balance in graduate student questions would be greatly appreciated. I tried to take the direct approach in asking a specific student to participate, thinking that personal encouragement would boost confidence in the student, but I worry that in fact my intervention hurt rather than helped the situation (e.g., promoted more anxiety). I think it may also be good for students to see other female participants asking questions, but most of the female faculty (myself included) held back to allow graduate students to ask questions–seems like it’s a delicate balance to find.

[One final observation, from Eric Bakovic upon seeing this data is that “women speakers were overwhelmingly questioned by males, while questions for male speakers appear more balanced.”] Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

5 thoughts on “The representation of women in phonological discussion: Data from SCAMP 2016

  1. Heather Newell

    Thanks Stephanie!
    This is interesting, and I think it is a good bet that the pattern emerged for the reasons you cite. I think one solution might be the same one that has been promoted in the area of sexual assault, namely that we won’t solve the problem by only asking the women to change (their clothing there, their behaviour both there and here) (NB I am not implying here that question-asking by males is an assault). I think what needs to happen is that the discussion of the effects of gender in academic settings needs to occur in graduate (and undergraduate) classes, making both males and females aware of the trends, and giving them a safe place to discuss and learn. I fear this sort of thing does not get discussed in classes due to the lack of time we have to teach all of our students the academic content that they need. Perhaps this needs to be an extra class that is included as part of incoming students’ orientation.

  2. Chris Geissler

    One important thing I see, as a male graduate student, is the need in our society to train men to hold back (especially men who are white, or from other sorts of privileged backgrounds). It took me until college to learn that I had been trained to believe that my voice was valuable and that everyone always wanted to hear what I have to say–which has both positive and negative effects. It’s a good thing that I feel comfortable speaking up in potentially-intimidating places like classes or conferences, but it also doesn’t occur to me that some other people (especially but not exclusively women) wouldn’t feel so comfortable.

    This is why we need to train men (et al.) to hold back a bit and let that beat pass, to give time for women (et al.) to take the initiative.

  3. Robert Daland

    A phenomenon I have observed repeatedly is that question-asking is like a dam bursting. Many people are intimidated to ask the first question, or else require some time to process the talk and formulate their own question properly. I often try to ask a softball question first, to warm the speaker up and give the audience time to think up (or work up to) their own questions. I’ve never considered the gender balance issue on this, but my subjective impression is that if a perceived senior person asks first, that creates the space for more junior people to go too (“oh, Dr. X did it and nothing bad happened, I guess it’s okay for me to ask questions too”).

    When I do try to ponder the gender implications of this approach, I suppose I have always taken the implicit position that senior female and male faculty are tough enough, whereas all graduate students (female and male) need a certain, nurturing and protective shove in the right direction. That is, I think of asking the first question as setting a positive example for junior researchers, rather than as inhibiting them. Of course, if a junior researcher is *competing* with me for the first question, I would like to believe I would yield the floor to them — because in that case the ice-breaking function is getting done, *and* they are setting an even better positive example that juniors can ask the first question.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *