June 27, 2014
Gender and Conference Questions
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

Like Elizabeth I attended Seattle University's fantastic Berle VI conference.  The quality of the talks was uniformly high, and the tone of the conference was one of engagement and dialogue, not ideology.  In short, it was a great conference.

Unusually for me, I didn't present a paper, but was a mere participant (or, as I like to think of it, "invited guest").  I felt it my duty  as invited audience member to ask questions, even though I was always the last to raise my hand in elementary school, college, and even law school.

This is what I want to type next: here's the secret about law conferences--and, I'd be willing to guess, academic conferences in general.  The women in the audience are counting.  Always.  They're counting the number of women speakers.  They're counting the number of questions women ask.  Particularly if the speaker calls on his own questioners, they're aware of how many women he calls on and whether he ignores women who have had their hands up for some time to call on men who raise their hand later.  A constant back-of-the-mind tally is part and parcel of the woman academic's conference world.

I don't know if that's true, though--that's why I'm uncertain about the authoritative tenor of the prior paragraph.  It's something I've talked about with women academics many times.  Never with men.  But it's something I do almost subconsciously.  If I had my druthers I'd take a while to frame my question, hear what others have to say, see if I have anything to add, formulate and reformulate.  But if there's a 15-minute Q-and-A period and no woman has raised her hand at the 10-minute mark, I start to feel a lot of pressure to say something.  Anything.  Particularly at my home institution, since it's the deep South and I don't want it to look like we're some backwater where women are oppressed/unengaged/unintellectual.

Berle VI was an ideal conference in gender terms--centered around an article by 2 women academics, nearly half the attendees women, which is almost unheard of in corporate or securities law.  Thus it seems like a good time to voice these thoughts.  This is something  that feels quite personal, and something I've never blogged about--nor read about--but have thought about a lot.  Hence the title of this post-- I'm posing a question about conference questions and how others perceive them.  How many women feel this way?  How many men have any clue that they do?


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