How Men and Women Think Differently

I used to ask a question when interviewing apprentice candidates that was designed to discover their passion: “When was the last time you stayed up all night working on something?”

I thought it was a pretty clever question. A passionate person is one who would get so excited and myopically focused on something they loved that they would forget to sleep and work through the night just for the love of it.

It turns out that I wasn’t uncovering passion. Instead, I was just uncovering whether or not the person was a 20-something man-child. Working through the night on something is an expression of passion in a certain group of people, but it’s also an expression of immaturity and short-term thinking. A long-term thinker might realize that staying up tonight will negatively affect his ability to pursue his passion tomorrow. A more mature person would realize that some problems are best approached after a good night’s sleep.

I discovered the gender bias in my interview question after I read a study from Carnegie Mellon University that was conducted from 1995 to 1999 by Jane Margolis. The study reveals that when it comes to computing, women’s interests tend to be broader than men’s. Unfortunately for women, the programming culture tends to reward narrow rather than broad focus. Many women end up feeling as though they do not belong in the profession because of this. They can feel as though their interests are too broad for a programming career.

The dominate CS culture does not venerate multiple interests. Instead the singular and obsessive interest in computing that is common among men is assumed to be the road to success in computing. The model shapes the assumptions of who will succeed and who "belongs" in the discipline.

Jane Margolis in "Unlocking the Clubhouse" p71

Women can also be passionate about programming, but rarely does it express itself as an intense and myopic focus at the exclusion of health and relationships as it sometimes does in men. Twenty percent of women in the CMU study reported feeling that they didn't belong in computer science because they didn’t "Love" it as much as men. This research made me realize that I needed new interview questions, ones that would uncover different expressions of passion for programming.

I shared this research with my wife. It did not come as surprise to her. She likes to explain this difference between men and women using an analogy with bedroom furniture. Men are like a chest of drawers. They pull open a drawer, get something out, close it, and open another one. Women, on the other hand, are like a walk-in closet. They see everything all at once. Men tend to be focused on only the thing that is directly in front of them and women tend to focus more broadly with more context.

This is why conversations with my wife often take inexplicable (to me) turns. We will be talking about her staff meeting one second, and all of a sudden she’ll jump to a story from a trip we took years ago. I have no idea how we got there. Sometimes, she’ll back up and connect the dots for me, and I’ll marvel at the multiple streams of thought she keeps in her head all at once.

I, on the other hand, cannot even sit in a room where I can hear two conversations at once. We’ll be in a restaurant, enjoying ourselves, and I’ll suddenly find myself tuned in to the conversation at the table behind us, unaware of what’s going on in front of me. Or, if I head upstairs to grab a pair of socks but see a stack of magazines on my way up, I’ll find myself standing over the recycle bin still in bare feet. One thing at a time. It’s how my brain works. The only way I survive is by making lists and checking things off one at a time.

Now, what I’ve shared is a research-based generalization. It’s certainly not true for all people. Gender does not pigeon-hole a person into being a broad or narrow thinker. But I do think this is a significant enough gender difference that we should talk about.

How does this play out on programming teams?

A team is in an iteration planning meeting. A man will be focused very deeply in talking about a specific feature. Out of nowhere, a woman on the team will ask a question that seems completely unrelated. The man will be frustrated by distraction and digression. The woman will be frustrated because the team is ignoring an important consideration.

A woman talks in the stand-up meeting at length about the branch she’s been working on. A man on the team hears that she’s not ready to merge the code. She seems to be wanting him to do something with it, but he has no idea what.

A man is “head-down” coding away, but a woman has some new critical insight or information about the problem he is working on. She doesn’t want to interrupt him, but she tries anyway and fails to grab his attention. She feels like her voice isn’t heard or important to the team. He is annoyed that someone tried to break his concentration.

Armed with a little bit of gender-awareness, both men and women in this situation can develop strategies to reduce frustrations and obtain better outcomes.

Men: Your intense focus isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Allow yourself to be interrupted more often and you’ll probably get your task done sooner.

Women: Sometimes there’s no way to solve a problem except by focusing on pushing through it.

Men: She isn’t trying to annoy you, she is just trying to get your attention because you are doing something short-sighted or unnecessary.

Women: Know that he does actually value your input. Sometimes he is just so absorbed in something else that he doesn’t hear it. It might take a louder attempt to get his attention.

Men: When a woman interrupts you, stop what you’re doing and give her your full attention. She’s about to tell you something that could save you tons of time. She’s already debated for quite a while whether or not to break your concentration. What she has to say is important.

Women: When you need something from a man, you have to be very specific. He can’t process the entire context that has led you to this need. Just tell him exactly what you need from him and when you need it.

Just the tiniest bit of gender awareness can make a big difference inside of a team. Take a moment and imagine a team balanced with both kinds of thinkers. What does this diverse team whose members understand the ways in which they’re different look like?

As a team, they make fewer mistakes. They overlook less. They fill in the gaps for each other. Their strengths complement each other’s weaknesses. They manage to keep an eye on the forest and trees at the same time.

That’s the kind of team I want to be on. Don’t you?

Margolis, Jane and Fisher, Allan. Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. The MIT Press. February 2003.

Doug Bradbury, Director of Software Services

Doug Bradbury is a maker, a thinker, a craftsman, and a learner.

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