In this week’s column on Human Hardware, we look at the differences between the two basic models of humans: men and women.
As a species, the vast majority of our history has been spent not really thinking about the differences between men and women. The distinctions seemed obvious, and while survival was the main objective, each sex just did what seemed most needed to get through the day. For women, this involved having children and making sure they grew up to have their own children, usually through picking a supportive and providing male. For men, it meant feeding the family and having sex as often as possible. Simplistic? Yes, but most evolutionary realities generally are. Fair? Probably not, but remember, evolution doesn’t really care about being fair. It just cares about making sure genes are passed on from one generation to the next.
So, for thousands of generations, women became better at understanding social cues, essential skills for determining the trustworthiness of a mate and dealing with the daily challenges of raising children, and men became better at focusing on tasks and getting the job done. Through this process, our brains have become different in subtle but important ways.
The Male and Female Brain
For one thing, according to a study from the University of California – Irvine, men have more gray matter (6.5 times) in their brains, and women have more white matter (10 times). Gray matter is the raw processing material of the brain, and white matter connects the processing centers. That means that men’s brains have a little more horsepower, but women’s brains are better connected. Consequently, men can focus better on tasks that require raw manipulation of data, and women are better at pulling information for multiple sources and synthesizing it. What is interesting about the study is that despite the significant differences in brain structure, the researchers found no significant differences in general intelligence between men and women. Although our brains are wired differently, they seem to work equally well.
New neuro-scanning techniques have shown that men and women actually use different parts of the brain when we process information and think about things. Much of the processing women do is in the frontal lobes. Men’s processing is distributed throughout more of the brain. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), another study has found that our ability to multitask can be mapped to anterior prefrontal cortex, which is part of these frontal lobes. Scientific validation for a woman’s ability to juggle multiple tasks?
Getting from point A to B
One example of difference came from a study where men and women had to navigate their way out of a virtual space. With men, the hippocampus, which is thought to be part of our older evolutionary brain, played a more integral role. With women, the right prefrontal cortex is used, a relatively new part of the brain. Men relied on a spatial sense (it should be over “there”), whereas women relied on tracking landmarks (I go two blocks past the Mall and turn right). Males navigate by gut instinct, women by solving a mental puzzle. If you’re interested in the outcome, men did better (probably not surprising, as evolution has hardwired this ability into us at a deeper level) than women at navigation. This may also explain why a woman is more likely to ask directions than a man. For a man, navigation is personal. It’s part of who we are. For a woman, it’s just one more task to be done.
But the tables turn when it comes to processing language. In one particularly fascinating study, it was found that boys and girls actually process language differently as well. It seems that boys literally have one track minds when it comes to language. If they hear words, their auditory system is at work. If they read words, their visual system kicks into gear. But girls process language more holistically, in the language centers of the brain. This is where we think abstractly about language, processing its meaning. In boys, this part of the brain was much less active than in girls. At this point, researchers are not sure whether this is a gender difference, or simply because the study was done on school age children and girls tend to develop faster than boys in this area. But other studies have shown that women maintain a distinct advantage over men in language processing.
Left brain – right brain
Another difference in brain activity touches on the right brain, left brain dichotomy. Although visually our brains appear to be symmetrical, functionally there are distinct differences between the right and left hemispheres. For example, almost all our language processing happens on the left side of our brain. We have bundles of fibers connecting our left and right hemispheres. Women appear to have more left-right connections than men, and when their brains work on a problem, their brains are more symmetrical in processing activity as well. With men, fMRI scans have shown that the processing generally happens on only one side of the brain but women engage both sides of their brain on a problem. At the risk of oversimplification, it appears that women engage more of their brains when they think. Men tend to restrict thinking to the task at hand. Women take a more holistic approach to mental processing.
Men versus women online
So, with the 3 pounds of brain matter that sits in our skulls appearing to have evolved differently in men and women, how might this impact our online behavior? What would be the distinct differences we would see in men and women? The PEW Internet Project has looked at this question quantitatively, but there has been little qualitative research done in this area. In the past, in almost any study we’ve done, Enquiro has looked at male vs female behavior, and the results have been surprisingly mixed. I believe this has to do largely with the context of the task we were asking people to do. I’ll get to this point in a minute.
Before we look at the PEW findings, let’s review some fundamental ways that men and women differ. Men are the hunters. They focus on the task at hand, their status comes from how well they accomplish these tasks, they have some innate spatial navigational capabilities, they like to go in, get what they’re looking for, and get out. Men are also more prone to take risks.
In Why We Buy, The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill sees this pattern play out in physical shopping environments. Men usually go directly to what they need in a store by the shortest possible route and then leave. It’s a hunter’s approach to navigating the mall.
But women are the nurturers and gatherers. They employ social networks for information, make comparisons to select the best option, maintain and strengthen family connections, and generally are more “tuned in” to their emotional environments.
Also, remember, women very likely process language in a more holistic manner, combining the modality of their senses in the language processing area of their brain. In the male brain, processing of language is more like a single pipeline. In the female brain, it’s a network.
What PEW found
So, it’s not surprising that the PEW Internet study (released in late 2005) found significant differences in the online activity patterns of men and women. Here is a laundry list of some of the findings in the study. I’ll stick with the behavioral findings, and will leave aside questions of usage rates and adoption. With the foundations we’ve just laid, you’ll probably find many of these findings (quoted directly from the report) make sense:
Compared with women, online men are more likely to use the internet to: check the weather, get news, get do-it-yourself information, check for sports information, get political information, get financial information, do job-related research, download software, listen to music, rate a product/person/service through an online reputation system, download music files, use a webcam, and take a class.
Compared with men, online women are more likely to use the internet to: send and receive email, get maps and directions, look for health and medical information, use web sites to get support for health or personal problems, and get religious information.
More women than men send and receive email, and they use it in a richer and more engaging way. Women are more likely than men to use email to write to friends and family about a variety of topics, from sharing news and worries to planning events to forward jokes and funny stories. Men and women both appreciate email for its efficiencies and convenience, but women are more likely to feel satisfied with the role of email in their lives, especially when it comes to nurturing their relationships.
Men and women use the internet similarly for the many of the most standard kinds of transactions, from purchasing products to doing travel arrangements to banking. More men than women use the internet for some less predictable and even more risky transactions, such as doing auctions or trading stocks.
Men look for information on a wider variety of topics and issues online than women do, from researching products to buy to getting information on their hobbies to looking for political news. Sometimes, men and women look for different kinds of information. After the events of September 11, men visited more websites to tell them about things that were happening; more women said the internet helped them find people they needed to reach.
As vehicles for finding information, search engines are extremely popular among both men and women. About 90% of men and women who go online use search engines, and about 40% use them on a typical day. Men and women generally use the same kinds of search strategies, using search engines most commonly, but also starting searches on familiar, proprietary websites or following recommended links.
Although men and women say equally that they find the information online that they are looking for, men are a lot more confident in themselves as searchers, and they are less overwhelmed by the glut of information that’s out there.
Men and women searching
The last findings quoted above echo an ongoing question we’ve had at Enquiro when looking at how men and women navigate various online spaces. When looking at website activity, we’ve seen significant gender based variations, but when looking at search interactions, we’ve seen little difference. Generally, men and women navigate the search results page in pretty much the same way. We’ve seen slight variations (men tend to be a little faster to click, women go a little deeper in the page before deciding) but nothing significant. Given all the differences between men and women in almost any other type of activity, we wondered why this would be. The answer, I believe, comes from looking at the context.
It’s true that men and women process stimuli differently, but look at the stimuli presented by the typical search results page, at least until a year or so ago. Ten organic results, 8 to 12 sponsored results, all text, no graphics, ordered in a linear way. Clean, sparse, barren. This was a presentation of information tailor made for the male mind. No rich stimuli, no need to multi task. Essentially, all the holistic processing capabilities of the female mind — its ability to pick up subtle nuances and clues and integrate them into the decision making process — go to waste in this interaction. Search engines forced everyone, men and women alike, down a single track type of interaction.
But, as I said, this was true until about a year ago. As we’ve all seen, the search page is becoming a much more dynamic place. Increasingly we’ll see images and richer media encroach on the heretofore text dominated landscape. How might male vs female traits play out in this new context? For our answer, we’ll have to look at other types of online interactions.
How gender impacts online engagement
Once we move off the search results page into a more typical web interaction, we start to see some of the expected variations between men and women. Here, anecdotally, are some of the differences we’ve seen:
Women have more engagement with images, especially pictures of people. One assumes that higher engagement would also lead to greater emotional influence of these images as well, but this is still to be tested.
Women cover more of the page in navigating for information scent. They tend to be less singularly focused than men, integrating cues from various parts of the page.
Men are far less patient than women. If a downloading file or Flash module gets in the way of anticipated navigation, men are more likely to bail out. Once the “loading” bar shows up, men are looking for the escape button while women are more likely to let it load and see what it offers.
Men are also less forgiving of poor navigation structures. Navigation should be intuitive, standard, and straightforward for men. Of course, this is a standard best practice for everyone, men and women alike, but men will be more critical in this area.
Men are also more likely to use internal search functionality to get directly to the page they’re looking for. Women are more apt to browse through the site.
Men are more apt to impulse buy in an ecommerce environment. In fact, men are more accepting of the risk involved in online transactions in general. This finding was echoed in the PEW study.
Women have a greater ability to gain meaning from a more complex, graphically rich page. They are more comfortable in portal like environments. Men prefer more sparse and Spartan layouts.
Are the points I’ve shared here the victim of generalization? Absolutely! Variations from the norm mean that some men will be more interested in email than some women, or that some women will be less patient with Flash sites than some men. But to go back to the point I made in the first installment of this series, when looking at human hardware issues, you have to target for the greatest probability, the peak of the bell curve. And in the case of men and women, you’ll find a fairly sizable gap between the male and female curves for most activities. Online interaction is no exception.
In the next installment of the Human Hardware series, we’ll look at Dunbar’s Number and what it means for social networks and online communities.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.