Who Asks Questions, And What It Tells Us

Recently, during a technical training session for a new job, I found myself in an uncomfortable but familiar conundrum. The training had been comprehensible until all of the sudden it wasn’t—like a pleasant hike off of a cliff.

Plummeting into the intellectual void, I flailed for my parachute—in this case, a question. But the material had become complex so quickly that I no longer knew how to ask a question more articulate than, “Wait, what?” Reasoning that this query, or any other question I could pose, would either unveil me as a moron or would slow us down so much that we would be unable to finish all of the material on time, I clammed up.

After the session, I was angry with myself. As a journalist trained to view question asking as powerful—a sign of confidence—my behavior was irrational: I’d chosen short-term reputational preservation (and confusion) over long-term professional growth (and clarity). What was my problem? I wondered.

But as behavioral science teaches us, that’s probably not the right (or only) pertinent question. An equally important inquiry: What was it about the complex interplay between my traits (such as my gender—female—and personality), the situation, and my previous experience that made it harder for me to ask questions?

What was it about the complex interplay between my traits, the situation, and my previous experience that made it harder for me to ask questions?

While question asking has long been studied and powerfully deployed by scientific, academic, philosophical, and religious scholars, only recently have social scientists begun to untangle how question asking in public and private can impact the individual question asker, the person being asked, and even those who observe the inquiry. As researchers have recognized question asking as a key factor in accelerating professional success and fortifying interpersonal relationships, they have also begun to investigate why and when some people may ask more questions than others—and the implications of these disparities. Though this research is nascent, with only a handful of studies and researchers working on the topic, one finding has emerged that in some ways leaves us with even more questions than answers: question asking often breaks down along gender lines.

Take, for instance, the question gender gap on heterosexual dates, which I reported on a few years ago (and which other journalists have also written about). During my research, I discovered the sociolinguist Deborah Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand, which offers one explanation for the disparity. Tannen suggests that men and women view the purpose of conversation differently: men tend to see the purpose of many interpersonal conversations as negotiating for status in the social hierarchy, which they do by “exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance such as storytelling, joking or imparting information,” Tannen writes. In contrast, women tend to use conversation to develop connections, exploiting questions to discover “similarities and matching experiences,” she explains.

More recently, researchers have assessed question asking in both interpersonal and professional contexts, finding that men tend to ask fewer questions interpersonally and more in professional contexts than women, and that women tend to ask fewer questions during high-stakes professional contexts and more in interpersonal, nonprofessional situations.

It’s tempting to draw conclusions from some of these findings, and in particular to interpret question asking in professional settings as a proxy for a host of different, harder-to-measure dynamics, such as women’s empowerment, confidence, and sense of belonging. But first we must acknowledge something crucial: both gender and question asking tend to be observable by researchers—prime candidates for measurement, analysis, and proxy-status.

This raises a question: Does assessing question-asking behavior give us valuable data about women’s empowerment and gender equality? Or does it simply give us one piece of data from a much larger pie?

Alecia Carter hates asking questions. “I’m terrible—the worst,” she admits. “I very rarely ask questions because I’m far too nervous, and when I do, I trip over my words—it’s awful.”

Perhaps that’s partly why Carter, a researcher with the CNRS (the French National Center for Scientific Research) at the Institut des Sciences de l’Évolution in France, chose to study the gender breakdown of question asking in academic seminars. She and her coauthors were curious how that behavior related more broadly to women’s presence in the upper rungs of academia. In Europe, women earn 59 percent of undergraduate degrees but only 47 percent of Ph.D.s, and occupy only 21 percent of senior faculty positions. In the U.S., they earn 57.6 percent of undergraduate degrees and 52.7 percent of Ph.D.s, but represent less than one-third of full-time faculty and make up 27 percent of tenured positions.

In their 2018 paper studying 250 events at 35 institutions across 10 countries, Carter and her coauthors wrote that women are two and a half times less likely to ask a question in an academic department seminar than men (findings that echo earlier studies of other academic conference and seminar environments in astronomy, biology, and genetics). They found this question-asking disparity despite the audience being equally divided between men and women, on average, and even controlling for seniority: on average, at every stage of their academic career, women were asking proportionally fewer questions than men. Women, however, were more likely to ask a question when more questions were asked overall during a seminar, and less likely if the first person to ask a question was a man.

That same set of researchers, including Carter, also asked 600 male and female academics ranging from postgraduates to faculty members (from 28 fields of study in 20 countries) why they didn’t ask a question if they had one. Women rated explanations such as “not feeling clever enough,” “worried that I had misunderstood the content,” or “the speaker was too eminent and intimidating” as more important to their decision to stay quiet than men. Some of the reticence is rational from a reputation-preservation perspective: audience members who ask questions can be judged as harshly as the primary speakers of a seminar, says coauthor Alyssa Croft, an assistant social psychology professor at the University of Arizona.

That judgment can be especially harsh for women who, in asking a question, may be perceived as bucking gender norms that say they should be quiet, polite, and agreeable. These norms can also make raising one’s hand even more risky. “Women struggle with [the possibility of their question] making an uncomfortable situation for the speaker, and they’re more considerate of people in the audience,” Carter explains. “They don’t want to bother audience members with a clarification question.”

It’s a hurdle that even some of the most powerful women in the country have faced. Take Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. According to an anecdote First Lady Michelle Obama recounted during a 2009 graduation speech, Sotomayor felt so alien when she first arrived on Princeton University’s campus that she “never raised her hand her first year because  – and this is a quote  – she ‘was too embarrassed and too intimidated to ask questions.’”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor felt so alien when she first arrived on Princeton University’s campus that she “never raised her hand her first year because…she ‘was too embarrassed and too intimidated to ask questions.’”

Though Sotomayor eventually found her footing, for many women, such behavior can have opportunity cost. “When I learned to speak up, and get brave enough to ask questions, it coincided with me blossoming as a scientist,” says James Davenport, an astronomer who began studying the gender breakdown of question asking in astronomy conferences in 2014, and found that men were also more likely to ask questions than women in that field. “I learned to participate and become more inquisitive, which was really important when I was a younger researcher. I felt like, Oh, I have valid ideas.”

While Davenport and his colleagues’ data are based on people voluntarily entering what they observe at conferences into a web form, he’s the first to admit that it’s not a rigorously controlled study. But the reason he started it, and has kept doing it, “is not to learn the true nature of gender demographics or dynamics, it’s to make my community better. If just by studying this we were able to impact it, that would be a rousing victory for us. The goal is to make our professional meetings more approachable, equitable, and engaging.”

He’s heard some initial anecdotes that point to this positive impact. “Women have said to me, ‘I heard about your study that if a woman speaks first, that can have a triggering effect [on encouraging other women to participate]. Now I raise my hand early on to get out of my comfort zone, and to encourage other people.’ To me that’s a great thing. Those tiny interventions can add up.”

When a woman asks a question in that kind of a high-stakes setting, it can help validate the yet unspoken ideas of other audience members, too, simply by confirming that someone who looks and sounds like them has presence and power in the field. Carter says the question-asking disparity is important, because “seminars are where undergraduates first see their potential field in action,” partly through who speaks up. When undergraduates see audience members asking questions, they’re also getting “an idea of the kinds of characteristics that make for a successful individual in that particular field.” Question askers, in other words, can act as role models, signaling to those similar to them that they belong in that field, too.

What’s hard to know from the research so far is how much question asking is dependent on gender versus on power dynamics and personality differences. Teasing apart gender from personality can be tricky, “because a lot of personality characteristics can also be gender stereotypes,” Croft says. Take, for example, the categories of communitive traits versus agentic traits. Communion-related traits, stereotypically feminine, include being nurturing, warm, and oriented toward caring for others, while agentic traits, stereotypically masculine, include being assertive, independent, and self-promotion focused. “Is gender a proxy for personality characteristics, or are these personality characteristics a proxy for gender?” she asks.

Though some research has found that possessing more self-reported “masculine” traits such as independence and assertiveness can be related to a greater frequency of question asking in an academic classroom setting, social scientists have not systematically evaluated personality traits—like extroversion, introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—alongside gender as part of the majority of question-asking research. This means we still don’t know if gender is the most significant determinant when it comes to question asking, or rather if it’s just the easiest to observe.

A similar argument holds for question-asking behavior, and its value as a proxy for other variables, such as confidence and belonging. Does it actually tell us something deeper about an individual question asker, or is it just easy to see?

Harvard Business School associate professor Alison Wood Brooks considers question asking an important part of conversation because of how often the opportunity to ask a question arises. “It’s incredibly pervasive—people are asking questions all the time,” she says. “And, from my research, we also know that question asking is powerful. There are very few evidence-based prescriptions or interventions that can make people more emotionally intelligent, but question asking can. It’s easy to do and to deploy. Our findings suggest that all you need to do is go into a conversation thinking, ‘I need to ask more questions,’ and you will.”

And women do ask more questions, and speak up more, in different settings. Brooks and Croft’s research suggests that men and women are equally talkative, but they choose to speak at different times for rational reasons. “When women do speak, particularly in the workplace,” says Brooks, “they are more likely to be dismissed, to experience perceptual backlash, or to be seen as overly aggressive or intense when they assert their ideas.” 

We still don’t know if gender is the most significant determinant when it comes to question asking, or rather if it’s just the easiest to observe.

To be sure, “speaking up” can elicit a different reaction than posing a question—depending on the kind of question and the context. But research into women speaking in public spaces can still help us understand why some women may not pose questions, and what can happen if they do. Consider, for instance, Yale associate professor Victoria Brescoll’s research, which suggests women temper how much they speak in public in part because they’re justifiably afraid of negative backlash. After showing in a real-life context (the Senate) and lab experiment that increased power is not associated with increased talkativeness in women the way that it is in men, and that fear of perceived backlash can impede women’s loquaciousness, she sought to understand whether the fear of backlash was justified. In a lab experiment, she asked participants to rate the competence and leadership suitability of a hypothetical male and female CEO after they read short biographies describing how much each spoke. There were four different biographies that differed across two dimensions—gender (the CEO was named either Jennifer or John Morgan) and talkativeness (the CEO was described as either talking more or less than average in the workplace).

In the talkative female condition—where the CEO was a female and she spoke more than other people in power—participants rated her as less competent and less suitable for leadership than the male CEO who spoke an equal amount.

In another study, Stanford and New York University researchers embedded themselves into a women’s professional development program at a nonprofit to learn how women balance the need to be “seen” at work with the threat of potential backlash from those more visible behaviors. One woman told the researchers about a conversation with a male colleague after a meeting in which she had spoken up. “God, I’m glad I’m not married to you!” he told her, according to the researchers’ article in Harvard Business Review. Instead of confronting her colleague over his sexist comment, she decided to quiet down in future meetings.

All of this means, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “women require a higher threshold of confidence and knowledge whenever they speak up,” and that they are less likely to speak up in high-stakes work contexts, and may be more talkative at home, or in more intimate interpersonal contexts,” says Brooks.” Some research also suggests women may ask more frequent, probing questions in smaller group settings.

In the book A More Beautiful Question, journalist Warren Berger argues that asking better questions can improve decision-making (in part by challenging biases and assumptions), spark creative problem-solving, strengthen personal relationships, and enhance leadership.

But those are outcomes. What’s less clear is what someone’s proclivity to ask questions—or not—tells us about her. Brooks, the professor at Harvard Business School, thinks that the choice not to ask questions is related to “women not feeling empowered to speak,” but beyond that it’s fuzzy. “Question asking is a dependent measure that could be very malleable across contexts,” she says.

“It might mean totally different things in a group work meeting versus a one-on-one conversation,” but since the research field is still new, we don’t know yet. In some settings, for instance, asking more questions could signal lower status if a higher power person is expected to answer questions. Another dataset from Brooks’s work encourages us, again, to consider alternative interpretations from what seem like straightforward findings: it’s a working paper that finds women in conversation laugh almost twice as much as men across a range of contexts. It’s not because they’re happier, or even because they necessarily want to see their conversation partners again, but rather “the gender-laughter gap is driven largely by power differences,” Brooks says. “Women tend to occupy positions of lower power, and there are many unspoken rules about how people in low-power positions are supposed to behave deferentially towards their high-power conversation partners. When we put women in high-power positions, their inauthentic laughter decreased to the same level of laughter observed in men.”

When Natalie Telis was a Ph.D. student at Stanford focusing on evolution, statistical genetics, and computation, she studied question-asking behavior at conferences and found “two nice properties of question asking”: evidence that it is “partially motivated by your sense of confidence and belonging, and that it feels very observable.” While observing and quantifying something like implicit bias is challenging both inside and outside of the lab, most scientists do attend conferences and see Q&A sessions.

Telis wonders if question asking is a kind of bidirectional lever that could help us answer deeper queries. “If question asking is associated with confidence, and if confidence is associated with question asking, then if we’re able to affect the metric of question asking, perhaps it also means we’re affecting the confidence and belonging of women in the room,” she suggests. Measuring questions, she says, “gives us the power to understand a lot of things at once.”

What are the stories we want the research to tell us? And how does that desire, in turn, impact what we measure, and how we interpret those measures?

It certainly seems that people want it to tell us something, or many somethings. “We had an absurd number of people who were interested in [this research],” says Gillian Sandstrom, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, and another paper coauthor with Croft and Carter. Even before their paper was peer reviewed, “it was getting an overwhelming amount of attention.”

Perhaps it’s because for many researchers, the subject feels personal. “I feel those worries and fears around question asking and that internal voice that says, Don’t say that out loud, people will think you don’t belong here!” says Croft, who is an assistant professor and a younger member of the field.It’s completely imposter syndrome.”

It’s personal for me, too—which makes it even more important for me and others who are query-obsessed to ask ourselves challenging questions before we draw conclusions about this trove of data. Berger, the author of A More Beautiful Question, recommends addressing desirability bias, which is when “wishful thinking…gets in the way of critical thinking.” We can do that by asking, what would I like to be true?

What are the stories we want the research to tell us? And how does that desire, in turn, impact what we measure, and how we interpret those measures? Question asking could be a powerful determinant of professional success—and encouraging more of it could be a portal into more opportunities and power for women and other underrepresented groups. Or perhaps it’s not the right place to focus. Whether or not women ask questions in a particular context could tell us something about them, or it could tell us much more about the environment and people around them. What we do know for sure: the best way to learn more is to continue asking better questions.