The complexity of question-asking.
In what contexts do you find yourself holding back from asking a question? Maybe a sense of imposter syndrome has crept in, convincing you that you cannot reveal any confusion for fear of not belonging. The empowerment to speak up often depends on the setting, the number of people around, and perhaps your gender.
The goals and methods of communication have long deferred to gender. Common lore suggests that men typically communicate to negotiate status or problem solve, while women typically communicate to establish or deepen a connection to others. Research has found that women ask more questions interpersonally, but far less in a professional context, while men ask far more questions than women in their work or school place.
Gender Dynamics in a Professional Context
While these stereotypes do not encapsulate the complexities of any gender’s sense of empowerment, perhaps our knowledge of these stereotypes primes us to act in accordance. In her 2018 paper, Alecia Carter studied which gender spoke up the most in academic seminars, controlling for the male to female ratio and academic seniority. According to the study, women are two and a half times less likely to ask a question in an academic department seminar than men.
What can we learn from this? Given a more professional setting, women seem less likely to speak up. Questions help build rapport and create a more inclusive and comfortable environment. If women feel some type of alienation in the workplace, this phenomena could very well lower the number of their valuable contributions.
How might we prevent this? First, we must remember that disparities in question-asking are not solely based on gender; they can be attributed to introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which must all be taken into account. Second, the professional conditions should be encouraging to everyone. The authority in the room can establish a casual and warm environment so that everyone can feel comfortable. Finally, to increase the frequency of female participation, it has been suggested that when one woman speaks up, the barrier lowers for other women. This could potentially be a valuable tool to empower women in the workplace.
Of course, we would love to draw one large-conclusion about women in the workplace, but we must remember the considerable number of other psychological influences that temper the effects we see on the surface. Gender dynamics in any setting are at the mercy of the specific environment. At Cowry, we understand that workplace dynamics are unique, and know how to utilize simple solutions to create a happier, healthier, and more efficient environment for your company. This includes developing nudges that enable your employees to feel more empowered, ask more questions and take the right decisions for themselves and for your customers.
References for further reading:
Carter, A. J., Croft, A., Lukas, D., & Sandstrom, G. M. (2019). Women’s visibility in academic seminars: Women ask fewer questions than men. PloS one, 13(9), e0202743.