Is There a Self-Experimentation Gender Gap?

December 17, 2010

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)

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