Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why don't women ask questions?

Time: Today afternoon
Place: Klaus Computing Building, Georgia Tech- Parallel Computer Architecture Class
Context: Long argument between a guy and the teacher about why a particular cache coherency feature is essential to make that protocol sequentially consistent (Ya, ya Greek and Latin not only for the rest of you, but for many in the class :P) It is a conversation with one or two more guys pitching in once in a while- some normal guys, some of the other kind, you know, the kind who are always asking doubts in class and answering the teacher's questions etc etc
Most students are trying not to chat with their neighbors and looking at their notebooks or mobiles or at the prof and hoping he will somehow end this argument and move on to the next topic..

At this point...

Anonymous girl voice: Adding to his question, sir, if you just did this ........ 

80% of the class turns around and looks at her as if she is a Martian who directly landed in Klaus Building. 

Note that the same 80% was looking at their own notebooks or the professor and nobody ever looked at those other guys who were discussing so long, even the normal ones, who probably spoke for the first time today.

And that got me wondering. When was the last time you heard a woman ask a question in class? Or at a monthly meeting? Or any public gathering? I remember how, in Intel India, me and my teammates used to discuss why very few women ask questions in meetings. And I can't remember girls asking serious doubts in class EVER in my undergrad. (Serious doubts here imply questions that involve some logical argument and goes AGAINST the teacher's line of thinking. And makes you argue with the teacher. The only kind of doubts I ever heard from girls was- "When should we submit the assignment?", "How long should the answer be?" or "How much weight-age does this chapter carry?"
I know I sound like I am biased here, (which is quite against my general tendency) but I have been thinking about this since afternoon. And I really can count the number of girls, who I have seen asking serious questions, by the fingers in one hand. Yes, it is THAT dismal!

In fact, thinking about this further, I remember one pattern which I observed at work. When a manager, or a higher authority made some kind of rule or decision that you didn't quite agree with, some of the men I knew used to fight. Not fight in the sense of shouting. But assert their opinion and disagree, argue and be firm with their decisions until something else happened (or they realized this was not going to work). This kind of thing could be so detrimental to their career, at first sight. But then again, maybe it isn't, if you look at it closely. Maybe that is how men eventually get what they want. Anyway, my point is I have not seen a SINGLE woman fight against bureaucracy or stupid decisions or any other kind of enforcement the way men did. Women crib about this kind of stuff a lot, they express "mild" disapproval, and they do argue with peers and sometimes direct managers. But they don't fight. Or if they do, they give up too easily. I know I have worked for a very short time and have met very few people, and so, I might be committing a fallacy here by over-generalizing. But no, as I said before it is not just work. It is everywhere. From not wearing "real" casuals to work at a "no dress code" company to being afraid to be normal in front of a teacher to not asking questions to drawing margins in notebooks and underlining answers with red pens.

Seriously. Why do women always play safe? Why don't women ask questions? Why are women generally afraid to be assertive and more ready to submit to authority?


I don't have a proven answer really. But I have some theories on why this might be so. 
One reason is the way girls are brought up as against boys. For a girl, sweet and nice are the coveted adjectives. Soft-spoken, polite, neat (especially for handwriting), are all rewarded. You might argue that even boys are asked to be neat and polite when young. But think again. What is the most coveted adjective you would associate with a boy child? Sweet? Nah. Soft-spoken? Nah. Pretty? No way. Smart? Yes. Clever? Yes. Winner/fast runner/ good player? Yes. Strong? Very much.
You see the difference? The adjectives that are associated with a boy naturally require him to "perform". Whether at sports or at studies or anywhere else. Playing pranks is fine. Hitting another boy is punished, but expected, from a boy child. Bad handwriting is almost a macho thing by the time you reach the teens- a boy who writes neatly or comes to class on time or listens to anyone without asking questions is... "sissy" (note how that is again a female term). With so much of emphasis towards breaking the rules to prove "you are a man", the way boys look at the world is, obviously, as a challenge. A problem to be solved. Something to wrestle with and try your best at.
But going back to the sweet, soft-spoken, mild-mannered, pretty girl- what is rewarded really? Size zero figure. From thick eyelashes to beautiful hair to whatever else- if you want to be "girly" you ought to be good looking, or at least well-dressed. A girl who wears comfortable clothes (jeans or shorts or whatever) is "tomboyish". A girl who breaks the rules is also "tomboyish". A girl who is loud has a "masculine" voice. A girl who argues logically is "not a girl". (You would have no idea how many people have told me the last one!)
You might wonder how all this relates to questioning. The essential bottom-line in both the trends is that- a girl needs to be accepted and safe to be considered a "girl" (which she is already, and ideally none should doubt that, whatever her actions!) and a guy who takes risks and fights and debates is a "man".

But that is only part of the story. The other part is what happens when a girl does ask questions and argue. One possibility is she is labeled a "Weirdo". Or "Show-off". Or the best one- "What a silly question! Only girls ask such questions!" The last two are probably the worst. Any girl who talks to the teacher in class is considered to be "maska-fying" (buttering). While I know a lot of girls who do that, guys (and many girls) should realize that asking questions and arguing is not the best way for "maska-maar". The best way is the set of questions I listed close to the beginning of this post. And the last remark is even worse. First, there is no such thing as silly question. Only ability or inability to explain basic concepts clearly. Second, guys also ask silly questions. In fact, the best nerds ask the most silly ones. That is what makes their brains work, I guess. Third. What is silly to me might be complex to another guy. And vice-versa.
And that is just one end of the spectrum. While the girl is a student. WHat if she is a boss. What if she is the kind of lady who is good at her job and grows at her career? "She  got to that post by flirting with her superiors." "They recruited her because she is a girl!" (which is not to blame on women, because only men recruit like that! :P ) Or if she is a boss who is tough and who knows your rightful place and is strict about serious issues? She is a.. "Hitler". "Tough nut". "Too bossy". "Iron Lady". What is bad is that most of these "Hitler" bosses are just as strict as any of their male counterparts who are labeled "wise with experience", "good taskmasters" and "successful leaders". With all this bias around, how can a woman even try to be assertive? How can she fight bureaucracy? How can she speak up against her boss when she thinks he is wrong? Or clearly communicate to her subordinates when they are doing badly? Obviously, women don't do any of these, for the most part.

So, then.. what can the solution be? Simple- a) Men, AND women, stop discouraging and labeling girls who are assertive, subconsciously reinforcing gender bias.
b) Women, dont worry about what others have to say. if you have a question, ask. As Asimov says- "We still need the (wo)man who is intelligent enough to think of the proper questions to ask"

Just one more thing. I know a lot of people who will object saying this is all old. Men these days are much better and more encouraging blah de blah. Puleez.. This incident is of today, and all my experiences are of the last twenty odd years. And note that today's incident is not even in India, but in the supposedly modern country of the US of A. (See PS) Men have just stopped accepting this stuff in public and support women equality where it doesn't harm them. But everywhere else, and in a million miniscule ways, they keep reinforcing that divide. So if you are going to comment, please think again and then do so!

1. I know this is a long article, but if I start to publish it in parts, I might take too long :( SO thought I would just do it this way.
2. Gatech students would argue that Klaus classes are majority Indian, so thats why the bias. To clarify, my psychology class doesn't have Indians other than me. There are about 4 girls and about double the number of boys. Even though our professor keeps asking us to ask questions,almost all the questions (other than mine) are from the guys. I don't remember a girl arguing strongly with our prof at all.
3. For those of you who realized- Yes, the title disproves itself and is reverse-rhetorical in some sense... Couldn't help it :)


  1. Please consider the fact that girls were not supposed to be educated not many years before. They came into this field facing many difficulties, with the revolutionized thoughts put into action by many great people. We are on our way towards being "TRUE SELF" in these fields. Mostly this is also biologically developing through the ages. It will take time..... for girls to speak up and for boys to accept it!
    Playing safe??? Who doesnt? In fact, every person(irrespective of the gender) plays safe. But girls still have the need to play extra safe considering the kind of things that happen to them when they are different.(Eg: Pouring acid on the face, abusing, rapes) , may this is a little too much of negative going on, but please visit a village in India or anywhere for that matter, you will know the real truth. For many such reasons, I feel the asking questions thing will take time.

  2. @Smrithi:
    I don't think I intended blaming women for not asking questions. My point was exactly that since women are slowly discovering their true potential, they should make sure they do it in all ways possible, including the freedom to ask questions.
    Another thing is women should not become complacent of whatever progress they have made so far. There is a long way to go. And as long as even one human being (man or woman) thinks that men and women are not equal in every sense, women will never be able to progress.
    The third thing is I don't blame anyone for not asking questions. I blame society for not treating women the way it should. And as I said, it is better to blame and then try to resolve the problem than to remain complacent saying "we have achieved a lot" and be happy with what you have got...


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