Why aren’t women asking more questions?

Why aren’t women asking more questions?

A recent study found that although half of audience members of academic seminars are women, for every question asked by a woman, men ask 2 – 3 times as many. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this pattern often continues into the workplace, with many women holding back in meetings rather than speaking out.

The study suggests that the results are best explained by internalized gender role stereotypes about assertiveness. So what can we do to help redress the balance, both in the workplace and beyond? Here are my top 5 tips to help women speak up more in meetings, ask more questions and get their voices heard:

 1.    Know that it’s ok to feel nervous

Women report feeling more nervous than men about asking questions, but that’s not to say that men don’t get nervous too. It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous. Recognising that many others feel the same way as you can be the first step towards building inner confidence and taming the inner critic that holds you back.

2.    Acknowledge the voices in your head

Thoughts flicker around our minds constantly. Be aware of these voices in your head and acknowledge that they’re there. Many of our thoughts, especially when we’re anxious or stressed are self-sabotaging. Over and over, day in and day out, we think the same thoughts, many of which erode our inner confidence and stability. For example, after building up the courage to ask a question in a meeting, you might think, “Yes, you moron, you really messed that one up. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid and they’re going to find you out.” This negative voice chips away at your confidence and leaves you less likely to ask a question or get your voice heard in the future. If, however, you can calmly say to yourself “Yes, you could have asked that better, but stay calm, have a sense of humour about it and you can pull it back later”, then you’re far more likely to communicate poise under pressure and have the confidence to ask further questions throughout the meeting.

In her book, Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority, Caroline Goyder explains that we have two key voices our head – the inner coach and the inner critic – and underlines the need to be clear about their roles.

The inner coach does calm and celebration. The inner critic does refinement. It helps you honestly step up and improve rather than doing a full-on character assassination. The inner critic allows you to transform, improve and refine.

3.    Meet your inner coach

Caroline Goyder suggests the following exercises to meet our inner coach and inner critic.

  • How do you let yourself know that you’ve done something well? How do you support yourself and give yourself praise? This positive voice is your inner coach.
  • The first step is to notice that you have this voice
  • Say something kind to yourself. Give yourself a bit of praise or positive advice.
  • Notice where the voice is, what it says and whose voice it is. Is it yours, your Mum’s, a mentor’s?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • Practise turning up the calming voice of the coach whenever you hit anxiety. Notice how it calms you down.

4.    Meet your inner critic

  • Think of a moment when you’ve felt stressed or under pressure recently. The negative voice you hear in these moments is your inner critic.
  • Notice where the voice is in your head.
  • Left or right? High or low?
  • Play with the voice, turn the volume down.
  • Turn it up so loud it sounds ridiculous.
  • Imagine it really far away on a tiny smartphone.
  • Notice how when you turn up the inner critic it raises your anxiety levels and stresses you out.
  • Notice how when you turn the volume down you relax. In effect, you are in control of how you respond to any situation and if you turn the volume down on the inner critic you can minimise the anxiety that stops you from asking questions

Acknowledge these inner voices and use them wisely. Sometimes you need to give yourself tough love, but use the critic to make you better not worse; to boost your confidence rather than erode it. For many of us our default setting is to attack ourselves internally. If all the critic is doing is making you feel bad you need to take it in hand and get it to refine: “Yes, you could have done that better”; rather than attack “You were a disaster”. Know the difference and train your critic to help you. Next time you’re in a meeting, feeling anxious about asking a question, hear your inner critic and talk back to it. If your critic says “You’re going to look stupid if you ask that question”, talk back to it with the kind voice of the inner coach. You might say “You won’t look stupid. What if the question is received well and kickstarts a useful discussion? That’s what happened last time.”

 5.    Ask the first question

The study showed proportionally more women asked questions when the first question came from a female. Be confident enough to ask the first question in a meeting and this will subsequently help other women in the room feel more confident about speaking up. Be brave, be bold and go for it. If you’re someone who is comfortable and confident about asking questions (which the study suggests will more often be men), consider holding on to your question briefly, to provide an opportunity for someone whose voice is heard less often.

There’s no doubt that speaking up in meetings can be daunting, and it’s disappointing that this recent study shows that women tend to be more nervous about speaking up and asking questions than men. The good news is that we can all help ourselves and help others get their voices heard by following the 5 steps above: acknowledging our fear, building our inner confidence by using our inner critic and coach and enabling women to ask the first question in a meeting.  Male or female, let’s all do our bit to redress the balance.

This topic was recently discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

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