24 March 2008

Different minds working off the same brain

When my former coworker Colton wanted to find out how to do something, he would do keyword searches. Upon finding a promising-looking page, he would scroll rapidly down to the exact spot where his keywords appeared, read that, then look around for an example of the code in action. He was capable of making some amazing leaps of insight for which parts of which pages he needed to see and how to apply what he found there. Then he would write some quick test code - and keyword search all the inevitable error messages. In that way, he could quickly cobble together something that functioned.

When I want to figure out how to do something, my approach is to read everything I can possibly find that's even remotely related to the problem, before I even start. If there's a keyword search leading to a page, I'll read the entire page and any related pages. If there's a manual, I'll read the whole thing from beginning to end. It takes me forever to get started, and once I do I tend to be very slow and cautious with each and every step forward. In that way, I can make something extremely sound and solid that will last for a long time.

And when Colton and I worked together with our completely opposite approaches, we could do some astounding things. He was fast at making something that worked, and I was thorough about understanding why it worked. He was great when it came to creating something out of nothingness, and I'm great at taking the beginnings of something and optimizing it. He was much better than me at some aspects of a given project, and I was better than him at others. We could (and did) learn a lot from each other. Overall, however, one couldn't say that either of our approaches was superior or inferior to the other. They were just different.

So, too, is how I think of the different genders. Neither men or women are better than each other.

But there are differences. A masculine brain is better suited to doing certain tasks, and a feminine brain better suited to doing other ones. This doesn't, on the whole, make any particular part of the masculine-feminine gradient superior or inferior to the rest. It just makes them different. Different approaches to the same task are neither inferior nor superior, they are just different.

There are things I want to say here about gender differences. Some of them have a fair amount of personal importance to me. If for whatever reason you are unable to accept my basic underlying starting point - that there are differences - then you probably won't like anything else I have to say on the subject. Nevertheless, this is my blog and I'm going to say them. And after this post, I want to move on from the question of "Are there any differences at all?" My answer is that there are. If you want to continue disagreeing with my starting point after this post, you can certainly do it on your own blog.

And for those who can get past that first question: yes, I'll be delving into still more stereotypes. For that, Tania's 80/20 rule seems pertinent; 80% of women will probably fit the stereotypes about women, 80% of men will fit the stereotypes about men, and 20% of each will mix it up. I suspect most of my audience is in that 20% range about most things.

Here's an opposing-logarithms illustration of how I view the gender gradient. I slaved over it for many minutes, try not to nitpick the details too much.


Tom said...

OK, we're different. But that's hardly surprising to me. Not only am I different than most women are, I'm also different than many men are.

But I don't just belong to the group "male." I belong to many groups. "Geek," "Ex-Alcoholic," "Sci-Fi Reader," "Texan," "Middle Child," "New Year's Eve-conceived," to name but a few.

All the groups that I'm part of go to making up who I am. I'm not necessarily proud of being a member of the groups, but I am part of them.

But in addition, there's one other thing that makes me different from you, whoever you are. I'm me, and you're not.

Janiece Murphy said...

I think there are gender differences, based in biology, and I also think the 80/20 rule is reasonably accurate, from a statistical point of view.

Having said that, I'm a firm believer that everyone should be judged on their individual merits and contributions. But I think that should also go without saying.

Anne C. said...

Well said, Janiece.

brenda013 said...

I like your opposing logarithms. It perfectly expresses what you are saying in the text.
Your description of working with Colton made me chuckle because a friend of mine and myself, when we teach, are also opposites in our style so our teaching is VERY complete for the students from all angles.

John the Scientist said...

Janiece - I think you are coming at this from the opposite side as MWT. If we take an example of a technical hiring process, you are worried about whether women will get screened out, and MWT is looking at a new team of men and women and wondering how to best optimize them into sub-teams without having worked with any of them yet.

I'm violently opposed to wasting the most precious resource of human talent. But I'm not going to obsess over the observation that men outnumber women in engineering and mathematics, either, so long as no overt discrimination is going on.

MWT said...

Tom: I have a friend who likes to say "You be you and I'll be me." You'd probably like him. ;)

John: One of these days I'll get around to writing my rant against the concept of "wasting one's talents." Short form: they're my talents and I'll waste them if I want to. :p Also: there's more to life than the fulfilling of talents.

Jeri said...

Tom makes a good point... all those groups we are a part of contribute to our mindset and communication style... some perhaps more than gender. For example, I think my membership in the geek group supersedes my membership in the female group, as far as communication style and content.

You also have to wonder, how much of it is nature vs. nurture? I was raised by a feminist mother in a feminist era, and as such am much more direct and assertive than someone who was raised differently.

At the same time, I've raised a borderline-Aspergers, near-bipolar drama queen of a son whose provocative, emotionally loaded style is unlike anyone in my circle of family or friends. He's way the heck out there on the end of the curve, making the rest of us seem normal.

MWT, I do think your summary of the 80/20 rule (the Pareto principle) as it applies to gender and communication is still accurate.

Anne C. said...

The disproportion of a male/female ratio in any profession is mainly going to be due to the 80/20 ratio that MWT alluded to. It also has to do with the environment of the job. On a construction site, you're going to run into bad language and a testosterone laden environment, period. If that makes you uncomfortable, male or female, then you're in the wrong place. Same thing goes for an office with cut-throat politics.

That being said, I am less likely to be taken seriously in the first stages of an interaction than a male of my particular color and age. It's just a fact of life. The fortunate thing is that usually when I've proven that I am as intelligent and spatially capable as the next guy, I get taken seriously. I've found that sexism *usually* only affects how I'm initially perceived.

Janiece Murphy said...

What Anne said.

I really try not to be defensive about being a female in a predominantly male field, but sometimes it sneaks in.

Jeri said...

Janiece, Anne... it has nothing to do with communication style, but I enjoy how relatively uncrowded the womens' restroom is at the office and at conferences. There have been times in my career where I've been the only female on a site, and get it all to myself! ;)

John the Scientist said...

MWT it's one thing to waste one's own talent, it's quite another to have that talent wasted for you because some prick says "women can't do that". There aren't enough people with skills AND will to use them to fill all the really necessary jobs.

Part of having a talent is having the will to use it. If you don't, then it's not really a talent that society can benefit from. And not all talents are beneficial.

Anne C. said...

Heh. That's a good one, Jeri. When I've been on a job site, they often have one port-a-potty with a lock on it for the women to use because the other ones get so disgusting. It's nice to have my right to a clean toilet seat protected. :)