Gender and Technology

Alison Kidd, The Prospectory

January 2002

Within the high-tech industry, it is often assumed that men are more interested in technology than women are and they are therefore the natural early adopters of novel technical artefacts.

This paper describes the results of two studies: a set of technology discussion groups and a field trial of early technology prototypes. The results suggest that men and women are, in fact, equally interested in technology but their interest takes markedly different forms. The implications for technology development are discussed.

1     Results of free-form discussion about technology

In one study, we conducted 8 discussion groups on the subject of digital devices in the home, e.g. PC’s, mobile ‘phones, digital cameras, etc. The groups consisted of 10-12 people and were segregated by gender (4 female groups and 4 male groups) and by age and marital/parental status.

The groups were encouraged to discuss the various digital appliances in their homes, what they liked and disliked about them and how they used them. All the discussions were recorded and then later transcribed and subjected to ethno-linguistic analysis.

We began each group by inviting participants to describe some of the devices they owned. The men launched into the discussion with enthusiasm, swapping the latest model numbers and describing various device features in the following kind of style, “for a long time, the Sony Ericsson P800 was my dream phone … touch screen, handwriting recognition, camera (better in daylight than the 7650) and Memory Stick Duo“.

The women, in contrast, were not forthcoming or animated at this early stage of the discussion and were vague about model numbers, brands and features. However, the mood changed completely when we asked them to describe some of the uses to which they put these devices.  They came alive at this point swapping stories, for example, about the photos they had taken with their digital cameras and the uses to which they had put those photos (e.g. “I’ve cropped and resized some of my pictures from Florence and put them on a CD for my mum…“).

In contrast, in the male groups, when we tried to switch the discussion onto uses for the technology, it was much harder work. The men became somewhat vague at this point and the intensity and animation dropped out of the discussion.

The subsequent linguistic analysis backed up these observations. We categorised every comment as to whether it referred to some aspect of the technology itself or referred to some use for that technology.

For example, comments like the following would be categorised as ‘technology-related’. [For various reasons, the quotes here are borrowed from another source and are being used only as examples which are typical of the discussion data] :-

I had skipped the Treo 650 because frankly, it didn’t seem much better than the 600, and I was planning on going straight to the Treo 700 until Palm pulled two unfortunate moves on me

like every other camera in it’s class has a 3X telephoto lens zoom. It says it is 5X zoom but that zoom isn’t continuous it is more of a range of 5X but there is a gap between lenses. I just thought the wide angle lens was a really cool feature and so far I really like it. The camera has in camera photo stitching and with the wide angle you can get panoramic photo’s of 180 degrees

And, comments like the following, would be categorised as ‘use-related’.

It’s brilliant now I’ve got a Blackberry because now I can blog from anywhere – I just have so much I want to tell everybody about when I’m on the road”

“With my digital camera, I can take pictures of signs and decay and ducklings and unposed people and even myself … the photos can be snapshotty and not so lovely but still interesting.”

We counted the number of comments made by each of the 8 groups which were technology related and plotted them against the number of comments made by each group which were use related. The chart below shows the results with the red blobs representing the female groups and the blue blobs the male groups.

  Two interesting findings emerge:-

1.     There was a strongly negative correlation (see trend line) between the number of comments any group made about the technology versus the number of comments they made about its uses. [Analysing a subsequent set of one-on-one interviews with men and women showed the same effect suggesting that this was not just the result of group conformity]

2.     As we had informally observed, the female groups talked more about the uses and the male groups about the technology itself. This gender difference was most marked amongst the older participants and those who were married (regardless of age).

In a subsequent study, we recorded the free-form discussions of 50 teenagers (in mixed gender groupings) around a wide range of technical and domestic artefacts. Amongst this larger teenage population, gender differences were highly apparent with the boys accounting for 96% of the technology related comments and the girls accounting for 81% of the use-related comments.

2     Results of field trials of early technology prototypes

Over a period of 18 months, we ran a series of field trials of prototype digital devices for use in the home. Around 30 U.S. adults were involved in the trials. At the end of each trial, we conducted interviews and discussion groups. These covered the participants’ use of the trial devices and their evaluation of them. Again, their comments were recorded and subjected to ethno-linguistic analysis.

In this study, two clear gender differences emerged:-

2.1     Differences in evaluation

When describing the technology and its value, the women talked almost exclusively in terms of the effect that using the devices had on their communication with friends and family and ways they had found of using digital imagery to express themselves. They made very few comments about the technology at all.

In contrast, the men were enthusiastic about the devices themselves and were keen to discuss the pros and cons of various features and offer design feedback. Indeed, in one discussion, one woman actually stopped the men in the group talking about the technology, saying – “you all have been talking about everything technical but, at an emotional level, using these tools has meant so much to me!“.

It seemed that in evaluating the set of trial devices, the men equated value with the number of different things which the device could do (i.e. its set of features or functions). The women, on the other hand, equated value with the number of things which the device enabled them to do. For example, in the case of one single-function device, the men described it as “dull” and of “limited utility” whilst the women described exactly the same device as “usable for anything” and (ironically) “multi-purpose“.

2.2     Differences in use

The different approaches to evaluation reflected the fact that the women actually used the devices significantly more than the men and they found a much wider range of innovative applications. The men tended to explore all the functions available on the devices but only apply them in fairly conventional ways. The women rarely explored all the available functions but they were highly creative in exploring uses for the devices and were quite happy to use (and abuse) the devices in ways which the designers had never anticipated.  It was these varied uses which prompted the women’s description of one of the single-function devices as ‘multi-purpose’.

3     Discussion

Our findings challenge the assumption often made by the high-tech industry that men are more interested in technology than women and are ideal early adopters of new technology.

Our studies show that women are equally interested in technology but there is a very marked difference in the way they think about and relate to it. The men’s language is dominated by operational features and technical capability, i.e. their interaction with the device. The women’s language is dominated by experience and utility, i.e. the way the device enables them to interact differently with the material or social world.

Our results actually support and extend results of earlier studies into domestic technology which showed that women tend to focus on the role which the artefact plays in their lives whilst men focus their attention on the inherent properties of the artefact itself. Women also justify technical purchases in terms of their utility whilst men tend to do it in terms of the technical, aesthetic or economic features of the product. Finally, it has been reported that women are more concerned with using artefacts to gain control over their lives or environment whereas men are more concerned with their ability to control the artefact (Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992, Cockburn and Ormrod, 1993, Cockburn and Dilic, 1994).

There is a key difference between these two foci of interest. In the case of interaction with the device (the male focus), the set of actions you can perform is prescribed by the designer and there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to operate the device. In our trial, the men seemed keen to learn the correct operations and tended to study the instruction booklets before doing anything else. There even seemed to be a certain pride associated with understanding how to use the devices ‘properly’. In contrast, the women tended to lack confidence at this stage and needed some encouragement when first introduced to the device.  They expressed anxiety about doing things ‘wrong’ and ‘breaking’ the device.

When it comes to finding uses for a device, however, the set of actions is, in principle, open-ended, i.e. bounded only by the device’s technical capabilities and the limits of human imagination. In our trial, when it came to applications, the women’s confidence increased and they seemed to harbour no anxieties about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ uses.

Cognitive psychologists have described the concept of ‘affordance’ in technology, i.e. the extent to which artefacts (e.g. buttons, handles, switches, etc) offer perceptual cues as to how they can be operated. For example, what can be grasped, turned, pushed, pulled, etc to make a device do what you want (Norman, 1998, Gaver, 1995).

Is it possible that men are better tuned to picking up the affordance cues as to how to operate a digital device correctly, e.g. how to scroll menu options or which screen text is clickable. And might women be better tuned to picking up the cues as to what applications a particular device affords, e.g. using an ipod (whilst out walking) to record ideas for poems or using a cellphone to take a photo of a broken part to send to a call-out engineer?

Alternatively, these gender differences may reflect two fundamentally different value sets which together have shaped the historic evolution of technology, namely ‘virtuosity values’ and ‘user or need values’ (Pacey, 1983). In the former case, the focus is on the pursuit of technical possibility. The construction of technical artefacts is motivated by prestige value  and progress is measured in terms of technical performance parameters, e.g. faster, bigger, more powerful, etc. In the latter case, the priority is on utility. The construction is motivated by solving a particular problem and progress is measured in terms of the resultant material, economic or social effects.

It could be that the gender differences found in our research reflect these two fundamental forces behind all technology evolution.

4     Implications

Most R&D organisations in high-tech companies are motivated by the constant expansion and diversification of technical possibilities, i.e. opening out the space of what can be done. And the high-tech media and advertising agencies currently reflect and reward this form of progress almost exclusively. Coincidentally, this approach also attracts a predominantly male workforce in the R&D function of these organisations.

However, it may be that high-tech companies also need to recognise and reward the role of a different kind of R&D expert who is skilled at identifying and expanding the set of application possibilities enabled by a new technology. I believe that 3M, for example, structure their R&D functions in precisely this way.

The results reported in this paper suggest that performance in the first role may actually be negatively correlated with performance in the second role and vice versa. One may even need to attract people into the application focused role who display relatively little interest in the technology in question and women may fit this bill well. One of the early microwave oven manufacturers succeeded only because they employed domestic scientists (all women as it happened) to explore what dishes could be successfully cooked with the new microwave technology! (Cockburn and Ormrod, 1993).

Ithiel de Sola Pool praised the telephone as an artefact which could be used “with total disregard for the thing itself” (Pool, 1977) and arguably that is the key to its global adoption and enormous social effect. But within the high-tech industry, it is it hard to motivate the design of artefacts which meet this transparent, ‘unconscious’ use criteria because it never is the focus of excitement and energy for a technology enthused workforce. The latter wishes to create devices which demand the admiring regard of their users, i.e. the opposite of Pool’s sentiment about the ‘phone.

Women are less often the early adopters of new technology. And maybe it’s no accident that new technical concepts (the telephone, fax, computers, microwave ovens, Internet, etc) can take a remarkably long time to find and establish their real role or value. At the outset, people buy them because of their technical novelty and image value without really understanding (or maybe even caring) what they are for.

The findings described in this paper suggest that, if it were possible to motivate women to adopt more early technology products, they may prove both more motivated and more adept at finding uses for such products as well as filtering out the ‘duds’ more quickly and dispassionately. This may simply be recognising and better exploiting a powerful role which women have always played in the filtering and shaping of technological evolution.

5     References

Cockburn, C. and Ormrod, S. (1993): Gender and Technology in the Making, Sage, London.

Gaver, William W. (1991): Technology Affordances. In: Robertson, Scott P., Olson, Gary M., Olson, Judith S. (ed.): Proceedings of the ACM CHI 91 Human Factors in Computing Systems Conference. April 28 – June 5, 1991, New Orleans, Louisiana. p.79-84.

Kirkup, G. and Keller, L. (1992): Inventing women: Women in Science and Technology. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Martin, Michelle (1991): ‘Hello Central’ Gender Technology and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems, McGill Queens University, Montreal & London.

Norman, Donald A. (1988): The Design of Everyday Things. New York, Doubleday

Pacey, A. (2001): Meaning in Technology, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Pool, Ithiel de Sola, (1977): The Social Impact of the Telephone, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Silverstone, R. and Hirsch, E., (1992): Consuming Technologies: Media and Information in Domestic Spaces, Routledge, London.

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