So I was further intrigued when I read a story in today's Times Higher Education Supplement about women Lecturers in England, who feel very uncomfortable when they are asked challenging questions--especially when it is men who ask the questions:
Sara Mills, a professor of linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University, studied the attitudes of female and male academics to presenting papers after observing a normally "overbearing" female colleague go to pieces on stage.I suppose it is entirely possible that some men ask questions for no other reason than to make somebody feel uncomfortable (I'm not all that sure that no women do this), but it strikes me as curious that this colleague of professor Mills felt that the questions she was asked were "aimed to destroy her argument." I'm not really at all clear on what would be wrong with that, if the argument is in need of being destroyed. This is what "hostile" questions are for, after all. Well, it made her feel "personally undermined", and that destroyed her confidence to the extent that she was uneasy about giving more papers.
She found stark differences in the way the sexes viewed public speaking and in their response to feeling nervous.
Professor Mills stressed that not all women suffered stage fright. But she said: "It is my contention that particular types of gender identity and preconceptions about the masculine nature of public speaking may be activated or challenged in the process of giving academic papers."
She found that women were more likely to freeze because they felt marginal within their university or expected their audience to be hostile in question-and-answer sessions.
She described the experience of one female colleague at a conference: "Male colleagues had aggressively asked her questions in a way that she felt aimed to destroy her argument. She felt personally undermined, and her confidence was so shaken by the experience that she subsequently felt very uneasy about giving papers at all."
The inference we are invited to draw, apparently, is that this feeling of having been personally undermined is a function, not of this woman's own psychology, but of the dynamic that exists between men and women in academia. My own experience has been rather different in this regard. I know plenty of women who, if you ask them a challenging question, will pretty quickly show you who is really wearing the pants in an argument. Mills grants that "not all women suffered stage fright", and she does not offer much evidence in support of her own inference other than the mere consistency of the data with her hypothesis, but this is a classic case of underdetermination if I ever saw one. A professor of linguistics (not psychology) offers an interpretation of observed behavior that purports to explain the psychological motivations of hordes of people on both sides of a public interaction. Although the story is not an implausible one, it is merely that: one plausible story among many.
Mills reports that male "respondents" did not feel the same anxieties, but we are not told how representative the sampling of male "respondents" is, or what their experiences had been like, or how they perceive the sexual dynamics in academia. We are offered only another guess: males feel differently "perhaps because public confidence is key to the construction of masculine identity".