By Bobby Miller
When a person hears the phrase “tech geek,” a guy usually comes to mind. That is because gender stereotypes tell us that men are the objective ones, the ones with scientific worldviews. Women, conversely, are the social ones, the ones with more emotional and creative outlooks. In terms of technology, this should mean that men better understand the science behind various electronics. On the other hand, if our assumptions about gender are correct, then the typical woman concentrates on using devices for social interaction.
Does this typecasting hold up in scientific studies? While there is some truth behind many of the stereotypes, research also overturns a few of our assumptions.
Careers in Information Technology
So your computer goes on strike, refusing to work like it should. After a while, you end up calling a tech expert. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is only a one in four chance that a female IT professional will assist you.
In certain IT fields, the number of women is even smaller. IT security analysts, the people who make sure that websites like LinkedIn never get hacked, are 92 percent male in the U.S. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, there are also differences in non-professional computer maintenance. Men are more likely than women to fix computers on their own.
It is clear that, to some extent, this disparity arises from how the average teacher treats students differently based on their gender. As early as the 1990s, researchers have looked at how gendered education can affect students’ long-term interest in technology research. According to Roli Varma, who holds a doctorate in science and technology studies, educators tend to direct girls to study humanities and arts while encouraging boys to pursue hard sciences and mathematics. Some teachers do this without even realizing it, for they are unaware of their own assumptions.
Boys and girls develop different attitudes toward electronics before leaving elementary school. Mehmet Gömleksiz, a researcher in educational sciences, issued a questionnaire to sixth graders. He found that boys are more likely than girls to view science and technology courses as important. Equally significant, the boys he surveyed were also more likely to agree with the statement, “I feel confident in science and technology class[es].” This could indicate that boys receive more encouragement in those classes than girls do.
Varma and Gömleksiz believe that these gender differences cannot be attributed solely to natural causes. After all, researchers Dario Cvencek, Andrew Meltzoff and Anthony Greenwald have shown that second graders already believe the stereotype that boys are better than girls at math. This is before differences in performance arise between the genders. On top of that, the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 suggests that teachers usually rate female students below male students in math, even in cases when there is no significant difference in performance.
Experts believe that teachers need to recognize their hidden biases, particularly the idea that males are naturally geared more toward math, science and technology than females are. Teachers then need to work on having a classroom environment where all students can learn about the nuances of math and science. This is especially important as the world becomes more dependent on technology.
Everyday Internet Usage
Our casual use of technology varies by gender as well. Researchers Ira Wasserman and Marie Richmond-Abbott found that men visit a wider variety of websites than women do, in part because females usually devote more time to Facebook.
Wasserman and Richmond-Abbott have also found differences in how, specifically, the genders use the Internet. Males express more confidence in their ability to conduct research online. Their greater confidence may also explain why they are more likely to brave complicated banking and governmental websites.
However, the gender gap is not like the Grand Canyon, that is, large and permanent. There is evidence suggesting that gender differences in Internet usage will decrease as technology becomes more pervasive in our lives. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 34 percent of men over the age of 65 use the Internet, versus 21 percent of women in the same age group. These people grew up in an era that was more gendered and less technological than recent generations. This clearly influences their views on technology, as gender differences in Internet usage fall drastically when looking at the total population. Specifically, 68 percent of males and 66 percent of females in the U.S. access the Internet regularly.
We also cannot overlook the fact that gender is not, by any means, the only predictor of Internet usage. Factors such as education, race, income, age and marital status also influence how people interact with technology. With this in mind, Wasserman and Richmond-Abbott caution us against creating a black and white dichotomy between males and females.
Social Networking Sites
It is commonly believed that females are more social than males and more likely to form deep relationships with others. There is certainly truth to this perception, even if we were to debate over the extent to which it is caused by nature or by nurture.
These differences influence how the genders use the Internet to socialize. Although the Inside Facebook website reports that the male and female populations of Facebook users are roughly equal, no matter which age group you look at, studies have shown that women spend more time on the social networking site than men do. Specifically, women spend 62 percent of their Internet time on Facebook, as compared to 44 percent for males. Since women tend to be more social than men, this discovery did not surprise Sharon Thompson or Eric Lougheed, professors of health promotion at Coastal Carolina University.
At first, the data may seem to paint a rosy picture, one where women are better able to enjoy Facebook as they maintain their friendships. However, Thompson and Lougheed found that women are more likely than men to turn Facebook into an unhealthy habit. Seventy-seven percent of women confessed that they often spend more time on Facebook than they intend to, whereas only 50 percent of the surveyed men had this problem. Likewise, while 48 percent of the female participants believed they were addicted to Facebook, only about half as many males felt the same way.
Addiction may explain why women tend to worry about Facebook more than men do. Specifically, 20 percent of females reported that they are often stressed out because of the website, as compared to only 11 percent of males. In fact, women are twice as likely to lose sleep over the website. Lougheed and Thompson speculate that this anxiety may in part stem from how women are usually better than men at picking up “vocal intonations and body language” in real life, yet they cannot use this skill online, save for in video chat. The fact that women are more prone to depression and anxiety overall may also contribute to their Facebook worries.
The specific ways in which males and females spend their time on Facebook also varies significantly, as other studies reveal. On one hand, men are more likely than women to use the website to find and chat with new friends. On the other hand, women are more likely than men to maintain old relationships through the site. Psychologists Nicole Muscanell and Rosanna Guadagno, the researchers behind this finding, explain that this difference goes hand-in-hand with how women usually view online relationships with greater skepticism than men do. This means that real-world communication is more strongly valued among women, particularly when getting to know new people.
However, online communication is not dictated entirely by gender. Communication researcher Seung Ho Cho looked into self-disclosure online and found that both sexes share roughly the same amount of personal information. The depth and honesty of this information does not vary significantly either. Researchers Azy Barak and Orit Gluck-Ofri found only one notable difference in self-disclosure online. Specifically, their study reveals that women are more easily affected by the rule of reciprocity than men are. For example, if a man tells a woman where he works, then she will be more likely to feel the implicit pressure to share where she works in return. This is true both online and offline. Although Barak, Gluck-Ofri and Cho were looking at self-disclosure in forums, these findings most likely carry over to interactions on Facebook as well.
While these statistics are interesting, the social networking studies have one important limitation: they looked solely at how college students use the Internet to communicate. This accounts for only about one-fourth of Facebook’s population. The extent to which gender differences in online communication carry over to non-college students has yet to be studied.
New Tech Gadgets
You do not have to be a geek to realize that technology is constantly changing in the world today. As this evolution occurs, some people are OK waiting a while before picking up the hot, new gadgets. But other people need the cool, new toys right away. Does gender have any effect on where people fall in this spectrum?
According to Agnetha Broos of the University of Leuven, there are differences between the sexes here. Specifically, males are usually the first to pick up on new electronics. Females are more anxious around new devices because they often underestimate their ability to handle them. With less confidence, they usually take longer to adapt than men do. However, Broos notes that these differences are relatively small. Plus, as researchers Hsiu-Yuan Wang and Shwu-Huey Wang have found, social influence affects the genders equally as they decide when to adopt new electronics. So, when a friend has a cool, new device, a person of either gender feels the need to get a neat, new toy as well.
In previous decades, video games were targeted toward a niche market because they were seen as a pastime for nerdy loners. However, the market has rapidly expanded in recent years, resulting in much broader demographics among gamers.
Even today, the stereotype persists that video gaming is dominated by males. Whenever a woman expresses interest in playing video games, especially “hardcore” ones, it’s not uncommon for guys to look upon her with wonder and awe. Yet, in reality, seeing a female hold a controller should not be at all surprising. According to Flurry, a mobile app analytics company, the gender gap among traditional gamers is slowly closing. It is about 60 percent male, 40 percent female. And, surprisingly enough, females outnumber males in the realm of mobile and social games. Fifty-three percent of the gamers playing “FarmVille” on Facebook or app games on their smartphones are women.
Some speculate that women may be drawn to mobile games because they tend to be less violent than traditional console games. As of late, the most violent member of Apple’s top 10 gaming apps list involved throwing pieces of paper at a teacher. Compare that to say, the bloodbaths of “Mortal Kombat.” Plus, the social aspects of mobile and Facebook games might help win over some women too. Although many traditional games provide social interaction online, it consists mostly of competitive trash talk, as any “Call of Duty” player can attest to. This is less appealing to the average woman, as studies have shown that females are less competitive than males.
“I think it’s fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial,” said professor Allan Reiss, who has studied brain stimulation in video gamers. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species—they’re the males.” And, as he claims, “Most of the computer games that are really popular with males are territory and aggression-type games,” thus appealing to brute instincts. He states that this territorial drive is less present in women, so they are usually not as competitive.
Brain studies may also explain why men are three times more likely than women to become addicted to video games. Reiss has found that competitive, violent games are more likely to stimulate the mesocorticolimbic center of a male’s brain. This region is typically associated with reward and addiction. The male tendency toward addiction may also help to explain why men are more likely than women to favor long games on consoles over little apps.
However, it is important to remember that gender differences are never slated in stone. Throughout this article, the findings have shown how men usually differ from women, along with possible reasons why they do. Every “rule” has many, many exceptions. I, for one, am a man who would take a nonviolent Nintendo game over a first-person shooter any day of the week—my territorial drive must not be very strong. Plus, this article cited numerous studies conducted by women, reminding us that science and technology are not just a man’s game. Besides, Nvate is partly a tech magazine and it would be much shorter if the articles composed by women were deleted.
Yet, there are different trends among the sexes that need to be taken seriously. For instance, people’s social networking anxieties can be better understood by recognizing general differences between the sexes. Moreover, by acknowledging how teachers tend to push girls away from the sciences, we can gradually find ways to level the playing field. As the world grows more technologically advanced, there is no reason to exclude anyone from its exciting innovations.