Is There a Self-Experimentation Gender Gap?

As I get to know the QS community and the wider life-as-experiment one, I’ve noticed something troubling. In some areas there seems to be more men participating in our work than women. In this post I’ll try to identify the problem, suggest a couple of causes, and then get your feedback on what you think is going on and how we might improve things. (Note: I present this in the spirit of making our work accessible to everyone, and in hopes of getting a discussion going. I’m taking a bit of a risk here, so if I accidentally ruffle any feathers, please be generous and let me know so I can fix it up.)

The problem

This first came to my attention during a conversation I had earlier in the year with a very bright friend I was collaborating with on my Edison project. While discussing who our possible users might be, she made the casual remark that self-tracking tools are a “guy thing.” To back this up she pointed out that most of the experiments created in Edison are by men. She went on to wonder whether the very idea of treating life as an experiment appeals more to men than women. “What woman would want to look at relationships as experiments?” she asked.

She was being intentionally provocative to make the point, which worked because I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that there’s anything intrinsic to our QS work that’s not gender-neutral, but I think there are factors that go toward explaining what she noticed.

Let me give you a few very rough data points from asking around the community. Please note that I don’t offer these examples as concrete evidence, but to make the point that, at least by some measures, there’s a gender imbalance that we might need to be aware of.

  • QS comments: I looked back at the most recent comments here going back a few months. I found about 80, ruled out ones by me and my fellow contributors, and came up with an approximate male-to-female ratio of 80/20 (20% of comments were by women, the rest by men).
  • QS videos: I also reviewed the videos that’ve been uploaded to the QS Vimeo page and found the same approximate ratio: 80/20.
  • Boston QS Meetup: Eyeballing the last two meetings (both of which were excellent thanks to Michael Nagle), I estimated around a 90/10 ratio, men to women.

Possible factors

This got me thinking about what might be going on. Here are a few questions.

Tools vs. community: Could it be that having a gadget or tool focus selects predominantly for guys? My colleague suggested that while men are attracted to tools, women are more drawn in by community and collaboration. In an email conversation, Alex told me she’d talked a bit about this with a researcher who wondered whether men like tracking numbers and women like tracking thoughts/stories, like in diaries.

Topic of interest: For sites that are specific to one area of tracking, does the domain attract one gender over the other? I ran this past Alex, who said that at CureTogether ~2/3 of her members are women. In this reply she suggests a hypothesis:

Thanks for the question, Faren! According to a 2004 Kaiser report, more women are affected by chronic conditions than men. However, it is also possible that since we started with women’s health conditions at CureTogether, we have attracted more women than men to join as members.

Gender and science: Above the level of tools and sites is the perspective of poking, prodding, and measuring as a way to go about the world. Is there an underlying social bias that keeps women away? In my Think, Try, Learn work I argue that the urge to discover is a fundamental characteristic of being human, but there continue to be disturbing gender barriers to women in science. For example, see the Boston Globe article Women, science, and the gender gap and The Daily Beast’s Women in Technology: Is There a Gender Divide?

Initial population: How important to gender make-up is the seed group of people who first heard about the work? When I talked with Michael about this at the last QS Boston meetup, he mentioned that his network included many technical folks, a field which is still biased toward guys. For Edison I tapped my productivity blog, which for some reason appealed to men. And as Alex pointed out above, she started with women’s health conditions.

Site design: This might be a little out there, but does the appearance of a site matter to gender participation? The controversial post He Said, She Said – Web Design by Gender, in spite of critiques, got me thinking about this. Beyond look-and-feel, I’m curious about how the interaction of quantitative and collaborative tools might influence gender usability.

My take

My belief is that the ideas and tools we talk about here on QS can appeal to anyone who wants to make his or her life better, regardless of occupation, gender, or background. If there are unnecessary barriers to someone getting involved, then I want to lower those. I’m also motivated because as the father of a 10 year old daughter I have a strong desire to give her tools to make her successful, including the perspective of an experiment-driven life. We’ve already applied this to things like social engineering (exploring ways to work with the principal to get a “hat day”), repairing things (“Let’s try using duct tape!”), testing the foibles of human memory (“I have to floss again tonight? But I *know* I did it last night!”), and investigating cause and effect relationships (tracking her mood to see how it relates to needing a snack).

Questions for you

  • Do you think there’s a significant gender gap in self-tracking?
  • If you’re a woman, what barriers do you see in learning about QS or practicing it?
  • If you have a self-tracking product or site, what gender information have you learned about your customers or members? What do you make of it?

[Image from x-ray delta one]

(Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter’s journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org)

About Matthew Cornell

Matt is a terminally-curious ex-NASA engineer and avid self-experimenter. His projects include developing the Think, Try, Learn philosophy, creating the Edison experimenter's journal, and writing at his blog, The Experiment-Driven Life. Give him a holler at matt@matthewcornell.org
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21 Responses to Is There a Self-Experimentation Gender Gap?

  1. Dark Emeralds says:

    Speaking as a woman, and not a young one, I can say that a lack of science education has kept me out of all kinds of discussion, reading and thinking in science. I’m a huge quantifying and tracking geek. I love spreadsheets, charts, and technological tools. I have an Android phone and I use it. When I discovered that there’s such a thing as self-quantifying (very recently), I was completely galvanized by it, and by all that it can do for me.

    But when I started an experiment on your Edison site, I immediately ran into problems with my internal dialog: do I really understand what an experiment is? Is my purely female experiment subject (tracking hot flashes) too girly for this place? Am I really able to apply some kindergarten version of the scientific method to my daily and personal concerns?…and so on.

    Further, since the majority of people in my communication circle are also women, many of them from my generation or the one just behind mine, I have a hard time getting any conversational traction on this subject: they aren’t trained to be interested in it, and I’m not trained to communicate it very well. So this amazing thing is happening to me in what feels like quite a communication vacuum.

    I hope these thoughts are helpful to your inquiry.

  2. gwern says:

    > # Do you think there’s a significant gender gap in self-tracking?

    Yes. It’s a low social status thing – it is *weird* to measure and think about these sorts of things, just as it’s weird to do geeky things like watch subtitled anime. That alone guarantees a gender gap; that many approaches involve technical sophistication or the scientific literature is another major factor.

  3. Teresa says:

    I’ve noticed some of my male friends who’ve had children refer to parenting as “an experiment” and talk about “conducting an experiment” on their infant or child. I can’t even imagine a woman saying she is conducting an experiment on her baby, though I imagine women engage in similar activity all the time. I’ve sometimes wondered if men need to distance themselves from the emotional aspect of parenting by using the language of experimentation in relation to children. Perhaps the reverse could be true as well: inject emotional language into the discussion of self-experimentation and you might attract women. Self-experimentation + emotion = self-help? Or something like it?

  4. Matthew Cornell says:

    Thanks very much for your comments, everyone.

    Hi @Dark Emeralds,

    > a lack of science education

    That’s really important point. I go back and forth in the book I’m writing about how much to emphasize that one doesn’t have to be a scientist to treat life experimentally. I’ll keep working on it.

    > Edison site – self-doubt

    I *really* appreciate that feedback. It’s important to me to lower barriers to people adopting my work, and you’ve given me starting points. Much obliged.

    > [others] they aren’t trained to be interested in it, and I’m not trained to communicate it very well

    I continue to wonder how much of it’s a lack of familiarity with the experimental mindset vs. needing to portray it in a more accessible way. I’m not sure what the latter would be, beyond the generalizations of “social” and “community.”

    Hi @gwern,

    It’s probably obvious, but I’m not having luck figuring out your social status point. I asked a female friend who interpreted it as contributing to lack of exposure (the gender/science gap) and to the seeming weirdness you talk about. I’d like to hear more. To work with the limitations you mention (technical sophistication and scientific literature), I wonder if using approachable language and having accessible tools would help. Thanks very much for your comment.

    Hi @Teresa,

    > I can’t even imagine a woman saying she is conducting an experiment on her baby, though I imagine women engage in similar activity all the time

    I’m glad you said this. It’s a point I try to make in my writing, that we are all natural experimenters (it’s in our genes), but the language of science doesn’t make sense to everyone. I have an artist friend who is very successful, and when I told her about the idea (and used the word “experiment”) she was totally turned off. I just couldn’t get it across (my failing). However, when I talked to her husband later, he said in fact she *does* experiment with her work quite a bit – trying different media, approaches, etc. So the language seems to be part of the problem.

    > I’ve sometimes wondered if men need to distance themselves from the emotional aspect of parenting by using the language of experimentation in relation to children.

    Busted! :-) In general I talk about the value of getting a “healthy sense of detachment” at the times a pause or some distance is helpful. I didn’t think of this as having a male feel, but I’ll look at it.

    > inject emotional language into the discussion of self-experimentation and you might attract women. Self-experimentation + emotion = self-help? Or something like it?

    Brilliant! So well put, Teresa. A while back I started using “love”, even in business correspondence, a direct result of Tim Sanders’ book “Love is the Killer App”. Thanks a ton for your comment.

  5. Sacha Chua says:

    Female, definitely a geek, and into self-tracking and experimentation (although I think of it more like kaizen – relentless improvement). I thought about what I take for granted that make it easy for me to do this kind of lifehacking. Even just thinking about the first one – that I have the privilege of time and space to think about these things – reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, which argues that having that little bit of independence goes a long way towards encouraging certain kinds of creativity and accomplishment. What do you take for granted, and how can we start reducing those barriers for others?

    • Matthew Cornell says:

      Excellent post, Sacha. Thanks for sharing your thinking.

    • Mary Specht says:

      Sacha, I love that you frame it as kaizen improvement. I think that would resonate much better with women (and many men) than “experiment.”

      Not that experiment is dirty word. It’s not. It’s adventurous, it’s exciting. But I think “experiment” hits some women the wrong way because, as a very, very, very broad generalization, women tend to be risk-averse compared to men. Especially with relationships (see the great comment from Teresa about how men talk of “experimenting” with their children, while most moms would never describe it that way).

      (If you don’t believe me, consider the enormous success of the book “Women Don’t Ask.” Summary: we don’t ask for things we want, because we’re worried we’ll overstretch and ruin the great stuff we already have. Women can learn to ask, and do it well. But it’s not natural in our culture). But I digress.

      “Experiment” may sound chancy to some. In truth, however, QS experiments don’t risk much, if anything. And in truth, women try all kinds of things — experiments — every day to improve the way we do things.

      So it may only be a matter of framing. Kaizen improvement is a wonderful way to characterize it, instead of “experiment.”

      Thanks again, Sasha, for your excellent comment.

      • Matthew Cornell says:

        Thanks for your thinking, Mary. Kaizen has been influential for me, and I’ve adapted a number of ideas from it for my Think, Try, Learn work. Maybe a language change is in order.

  6. Alexandra Carmichael says:

    Thanks for this provocative post, Matt!

    I’ve been silent so far because I’m not really sure what to say about this topic. Having grown up in a strongly feminist home and then studied evolutionary biology, I have kind of a mixed view of gender issues, and am reluctant to draw conclusions. I see an almost wider variation within genders than between them, to be honest. Also, I’m trained as a scientist, programmer, and business operations person, so I’m used to analytical thinking and looking at data, and I don’t think that has much to do with me being female.

    That said, the talks I’ve most enjoyed and the posts I’ve most enjoyed reading (and writing) at QS have been ones that focused on personal stories rather than tools or services. Thinking in numbers doesn’t mean an impersonal data stream – numbers can often tell and inform a very compelling story. Focusing on this human aspect of self-quantification might bring more female attention to the group, but I’ve also heard from men that the personal stories are most interesting to them.

    So yeah, I don’t really know what to make of the gender gap. I’m just doing what I love to do and always learning along the way. :)

  7. Matthew Cornell says:

    > numbers can often tell and inform a very compelling story

    Exactly! For some time I’ve argued that experiments generate stories. Thanks very much for your comment, Alex.

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  9. When I first heard about the Quantified Self from Joe Betts LaCroix, I was intrigued- I like the idea of measuring progress over time so you can really understand trend and not misperceive an isolated moment or state as the only truth (in the case when the trend is rising or falling), or delude yourself into thinking you’re making progress. Measuring qualitative things is tough, though. For example, if I want a better relationship… does that mean less conflict, or potentially more conflict as the conversation gets more transparent and honest? I move from there to deciding not to quantify this area- just to live by the principles of love more and speak the truth, then journal and notice the general trend- the qualified self?

    Also, frankly, I’m just too damn busy to measure almost anything regularly except my bank balance, which is calculated for me. Like most women, I’m on a triple shift life plan. I work, I write, I keep a house and raise a big family, I eat mostly vegan and practice yoga every day, contribute in the community, and do it on generally less money than the guys. Plus I am culturally obligated to a time consuming grooming standard. So, no, I don’t have time for gadgets and measurement- I have time for work, service, experience and love.

    I do love science, and I love the general attitude of being curious about what happens IF…. it implies an arm’s length, observing relationship with your body, your life, the world around you- non attachment.

    My 2 cents. I cam to visit the site for an article I’m working on re: online communities and self improvement. Very interesting stuff here.

    Christine

  10. Matthew Cornell says:

    Hi Christine. Thanks very much for your comment. Replies in-line.

    > measuring progress over time so you can really understand trend and not misperceive an isolated moment or state as the only truth … or delude yourself

    Absolutely. I know you’ve thought about how biased we human creatures are, and self-quantification (self-experimentation, more generally), as an instantiation of personal science, is a protection against bias. I like how Richard Feynman puts it:

    “Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.”

    A book that helped me with this topic is “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely

    > Measuring qualitative things is tough

    Have you had a look at Alex’s post How To Measure Anything, Even Intangibles (http://quantifiedself.com/2010/08/how-to-measure-anything-even-i/)? I need to study this.

    > For example, if I want a better relationship… does that mean less conflict, or potentially more conflict as the conversation gets more transparent and honest?

    What’s wrong with simply starting with one thing, picking *something* to measure, and see how it goes? I’m talking with Seth Roberts right now about this, and his viewpoint is:

    o if he simply did something, he’d learn from it
    o do something very simple, with obvious flaws, turned out to be very valuable
    o as opposed to fancy design. flaws and problems are way over-stated

    I got this from his video “Stop worrying and start experimenting!” (http://quantifiedself.com/2009/04/stop-worrying-and-start-experi/), which was very helpful.

    > I move from there to deciding not to quantify this area- just to live by the principles of love more and speak the truth, then journal and notice the general trend- the qualified self?

    I do this too; it’s one of the reasons we started our Edison experiment (http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/) with simply tracking the dialog behind self-experimenting (i.e., the experience and stories). It goes to the value of self-reflection, what I call the “observation -> awareness -> change” cycle.

    > Also, frankly, I’m just too damn busy to measure almost anything regularly except my bank balance

    I totally get this, Christine. I weigh the balance of the effort involved vs. value vs. time available. In my case it manifests itself as my tracking being less rigorous that it could be. This is a problem because it negates somewhat the whole point of capturing numbers: letting the data talk to you.

    > Like most women, I’m on a triple shift life plan. I work, I write, I keep a house and raise a big family, I eat mostly vegan and practice yoga every day, contribute in the community, and do it on generally less money than the guys. Plus I am culturally obligated to a time consuming grooming standard. So, no, I don’t have time for gadgets and measurement- I have time for work, service, experience and love.

    Thank you so much for sharing that. I think, too, about living a privileged life, and I work hard to be grateful and not take it for granted. No guarantees when we’re born, just the urge to survive. We forget how many millennia we’ve struggled just to eke out living. It comes down to oil, I believe.

    > I do love science, and I love the general attitude of being curious about what happens IF…. it implies an arm’s length, observing relationship with your body, your life, the world around you- non attachment.

    I’m a firm believer in the idea of attachment leads to suffering. That concept has shaped my Think, Try, Learn thinking deeply. I’m not sure your thought on “arm’s length”. When talking about the experiment-driven life, I get the question “doesn’t that make you more detached from living?” My experience has been the opposite – that my maturing scientific observation skills bring be closer to my world, and my rational and frank analysis of *myself* as a subject, helps my ego get out of the way (at least as much as possible) of living more fully.

    > My 2 cents. I cam to visit the site for an article I’m working on re: online communities and self improvement. Very interesting stuff here.

    I would love to talk to you about this, Christine. Your topic sums up the goal my work very well.

    Thanks again for your comment.

  11. Wow, that is an impressive reply. I have read Ariely’s work, met him at TED.

    Want to phone/skype next week? drop an email if you have some time next Tuesday afternoon, or suggest some times that might work for you.

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