Here’s a depressing reason why more women’s voices aren’t being heard in academics.
Turns out, women are two and a half times less likely to ask questions in academic seminars than men, according to a study from the University of Cambridge.
Researchers observed 250 seminars at 35 schools in 10 countries where the gender ratio was equal, on average. They then asked students about how often they ask questions during educational seminars, talks or presentations and if they didn’t typically speak up in class, why not. When asked why they didn’t ask questions even if they wanted to women said it was because: they didn’t feel clever enough; they felt nervous; or they were worried that they misunderstood the content.
The study also found that women were more likely to speak up if questions were being asked by the instructor, but not when they are expected to ask the questions. There was a 7.6 percent increase in the number of questions asked by other females present when another woman asked the question first. The study also found that during a Q&A formatted seminar, when more time was allotted for questions from the audience, women were more likely to participate.
“While calling on people in the order that they raise their hands may seem fair, it may inadvertently result in fewer women asking questions because they might need more time to formulate questions and work up the nerve,” co-author Alyssa Croft, a psychologist at the University of Arizona said in the study.
What’s more, when the first question was asked by a man in the audience, the number of questions asked by women fell 6 percent, compared to when the first questions was asked by a female, according to the study.
And researchers believe that when women feel discouraged from participating, it leads to less overall representation among female scholars in their respective fields. “Our finding that women ask disproportionately fewer questions than men means that junior scholars are encountering fewer visible female role models in their field,” warns lead author, Alecia Carter in the study.
Women also asked more questions when the speaker was someone from their own department, suggesting that conversing with someone they know and feel comfortable with could make speaking up less intimidating.
People fear public speaking in general because they’re subconsciously afraid that they might say something wrong and others will see them as an outcast, public speaking expert John West of New York Vocal Coaching tells Moneyish, adding that they tend to stay quiet as a survival instinct to protect themselves from criticism.
“The idea of putting ourselves out there in a way that we’re subjecting ourselves and making ourselves vulnerable to others doesn’t feel very good,” West said. “It’s hard for people to take that first step. We want to wait and see who goes first and spend time analyzing.”
Here are some tips on how to confidently speak up in public, even if you don’t want to:
Breathe before you speak
The stress of speaking up, even if it’s just asking or answering a question, can cause your heart to pound and make it harder to catch your breath and speak audibly. It can also make you nervous, like some of the women reported in the study, so remember to physically slow things down. “A deep breath before the presentation begins causes the heart rate to slow. It gives us the ability to reinforce to our body that everything is okay right now,” says West. Take a deep breath by contracting the diaphragm and expanding your belly as you inhale and then let out a deep exhale. And studies show that deep breathing promotes mindfulness and makes the body feel more relaxed and calm during a time of tension especially if you repeat the cycle for three to 10 times.
Go first, if possible
Stewing in feelings of nervousness or dread about speaking up can make the actual task of giving a speech or simply stating your opinion to a large group of peers feel even more intimidating than it already is. So challenge yourself to be the first to get up or to raise your hand and just get it over with. This gives your mind less time to think about the worst that could happen. “While that may be paralyzing, what you realize is people admire the person who does it,” said West. “If you give yourself permission to say ‘I’m going to do this today and if I hate it, I never have to do it again,’ you’ll get over that initial hurdle”
Prep for success
If you’re nervous about an upcoming interview or speech you have to give, West says it’s crucial to run it by a friend or someone you feel comfortable around. “Most people go and wing it on the day of and expect things to go beautifully,” says West, adding that people can get flustered if they are presented with a difficult question from an audience member. So get your training partner to deliberately try to distract you by talking loudly, interrupting or asking you thought-provoking questions, so you’ll be better prepared for anything thrown your way. And if you know you have an upcoming lecture and you feel like you don’t fully understand the content, like some of the female respondents said in the Cambridge study, prep for it the night before by thinking of questions you’d like to ask the instructor and perhaps run them by friends to see if they make sense.
Don’t aim for perfection
People will just be impressed that you had the guts to say something.
“The perfectionism that we feel in impromptu speaking is the single most debilitating and limiting factor keeping us from excelling,” notes West. “The person that simply raises their hand will often make people feel more inspired than the person that says the perfect thing without that conviction.” And if you’re really shy or afraid of judgment, challenge yourself to do something small that you think is uncomfortable or awkward in front of strangers (such as humming in an elevator) to help desensitize yourself.
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