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Ladies First?

This age-old act of chivalry may have a more positive impact than we realise by offering, at least in part, a simple but effective way to combat the gender pay gap. Even in 2021, when one of the world’s priorities appears to be equality of the sexes, the low share of women in senior positions continues despite the efforts of organisations such as UN Women. So why is this? One theory is that women in general have lower self-confidence than men, leaving them less likely to push for promotions, and pay rises. This idea is supported by research led by a team from five different universities across the US and Europe.

The researchers found that in 247 university seminars in 35 colleges across ten countries, on average men were 2.5 times more likely to pose questions to the speaker, despite half of the audience being female. However, the observers also noted that this was only the case when a man was first to ask a question. When a woman was given the first opportunity, the subsequent gender split was proportional to that of the audience. It seems that once a woman asks a question, others feel more confident in raising their hands. So, could simply handing the microphone to a woman first instil more confidence generally in women, helping to solve one of society’s most intractable problems?

It is well understood that organisations with gender-balanced workforces are more likely to succeed, and many employers go to great lengths to retain and promote talented women. But the gender gap remains, so clearly more can be done. If one of the keys to women succeeding is self-confidence, then next time you give a presentation, whether it’s in front of a lecture room or any other audience, why not make sure that a woman gets to ask the first question?

Rebecca Webster

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