When I give a talk, I like to allow time for questions. It’s not just a matter of politeness to the audience, though that is a factor. I find it helps me gauge how the talk has gone down: what points have people picked up on, are there things they didn’t get, and are there things I didn’t get? Quite often a question coming from left field gives me good ideas. Sometimes I’m challenged and that’s good too, as it helps me either improve my arguments or revise them. But here’s the thing. After virtually every talk I give there’s a small queue of people who want to ask me a private question. Typically they’ll say, “I didn’t like to ask you this in the question period, but…”, or “This probably isn’t a very sensible thing to ask, but…”. And the thing I’ve noticed is that they are almost always women. And very often I find myself saying, “I wish you’d asked that question in public, because I think there are lots of people in the audience who’d have been interested in what you have to say.”
I’m not an expert in gender studies or feminism, and most of my information about research on gender differences comes from Virginia Valian’s scholarly review, Why So Slow. Valian reviews studies confirming that women are less likely than men to speak out in question sessions in seminars. I have to say my experience in the field of psychology is rather different, and I'm pleased to work in a department where women’s voices are as likely to be heard as men’s. But there’s no doubt that this is not the norm for many disciplines, and I've attended conferences, and given talks, where 90% of questions come from men, even when they are a minority of the audience.