Women are less likely to speak up during medical conferences, but research shows an easy fix

A new study has revealed that women are less likely to participate during medical and science-based conferences, but a few small tweaks can make a big difference.

Research led by endocrinologist and senior researcher at Imperial College London Dr Victoria Salem showed that women ask fewer questions than men, and their questions last for about a third of the length that men’s do.

According to the research paper, women are starkly under-represented in senior medical faculty positions despite representing half of the undergraduates in medicine.

Researchers investigated female participation at the UK’s Society for Endocrinology conference in 2017 and 2018, carrying out slight interventions in the 2018 conference to try and improve female inclusion.

Through analysing 444 questions and comments spoken by delegates – 47 per cent of which were women – from sessions at the 2017 conference,  only 24 per cent of all questions and comments were made by women, and 48 per cent of these questions were asked by session chairs or moderators.

Questions and comments from at the 2017 conference lasted a combined two hours and 54 minutes, compared with women who spoke for only 56 minutes.

In 2018, an email was sent to the conference’s organisers asking them to invite more women chair sessions, as well as an email reminding chairs to offer opening questions to women if the opportunity presents.

As a result, the number of sessions with at least one woman in a chair position grew from 34 per cent to 47 per cent.

The number of questions asked by women at the 2018 conference grew to 35 per cent, which is still significantly lower than the amount asked by men.

Still, the report points out, having more moderator positions filled by women did result in an increase in questions asked by female participants.

This is further backed up by the additional finding that only nine per cent of questions were asked by a woman at sessions with male-only chairs, but when sessions had all-female chairs, that number grew to 29 per cent.

The research also found that 76 per cent of first questions in the sessions were answered by men, with 86 per cent of these questions followed by a second question by another man.

When the first question of a session was asked by a woman, however, 50 per cent of second questions were from women.

Kevin Murphy, who is a professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Imperial College London, and was a senior author of the research paper,  told The Guardian: “There’s a lot of talk about women needing to ‘lean in’, but actually … we’ve kind of created the scientific culture that might make it more difficult for them to participate.

“We tweak conferences all the time to make them more accessible.

“So, if we think that it’s a good thing that there’s more diversity and equality, then we should be tweaking things to make it easier to get diversity and equality.”

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