I had a very brief but very interesting talk with Prof. Margaret Burnett. She does research on gender and programming. at Oregon State University, but was in town for the International Conference on Software Engineering. She said that many studies have shown that women are — in general — more risk averse than men are. (I’ve also commented on this.) She said that her research found that risk-averse people (most women and some men) are less likely to tinker, to explore, to try out novel features in both tools and languages when programming.
I extrapolate that this means that risk-seeking people (most men and some women) were more likely to have better command of tools, and this ties into something that I’ve been voicing frustration with for some time — there is no instruction on how to use tools in the CS curriculum — but I had never seen it as a gender-bias issue before. I can see how a male universe would think there was no need to explain how to use tools because the figured that the guys would just figure it out on their own. And the most guys might — but most of the women and some of the men might not figure out how to use tools on their own.
In particular, there is no instruction on how to use the debugger: not on what features are available, not on when you should use a debugger vs. not, and none on good debugging strategy. (I’ve commented on that here.) Some of using the debugger is art, true, but there are teachable strategies – practically algorithms — for how to use the debugger to achieve specific ends. (For example, I wrote up how to use the debugger to localize the causes of hangs.)
Full of excitement from Prof. Burnett’s revelations, I went to dinner with a bunch of people connected to the research lab I did my MS research in. All men, of course. I related how Prof. Burnett said that women didn’t tinker, and how this obviously implied to me that CS departments should give some instruction on how to use tools. The guys had a different response: “The departments should teach the women how to tinker.”
That was an unsatisfying response to me, but it took me a while to figure out why. It suggests that the risk-averse pool doesn’t know how to tinker, while in my risk-averse model, it is not appropriate to tinker: one shouldn’t goof off fiddling with stuff that has a risk of not being useful when there is work to do!
(As a concrete example, it has been emotionally very difficult for me to write this blog post today. I think it is important and worthwhile, but I have a little risk-averse agent in my head screaming, screaming at me that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on this: I should be applying for jobs, looking for an immigration lawyer, doing laundry, or working on improving the performance of my maps code. In other words, writing this post is risky behaviour: it takes time for no immediate payoff, and only a low chance of a future payoff. It might also be controversial enough that it upsets people. Doing laundry, however, is a low-risk behaviour: I am guaranteed that it will make my life fractionally better.)
To change the risk-averse population’s behaviour, you would have to change their entire model of risk-reward. I’m not sure that’s possible, but I also think that you shouldn’t want to change the attitude. You want some people to be risk-seeking, as they are the ones who will get you the big wins. However, they will also get you the big losses. The risk-averse people are the ones who provide stability.
Also note that because there is such asymmetry in task completion time between above-median and below-median, you might expect that a bunch of median programmers are, in the aggregate, more productive than a group at both extremes. (There are limits to how much faster you can get at completing a task, but there are no limits to how much slower you can get.) It might be that risk aversion is a good thing!
There was a study I heard of second-hand (I wish I had a citation — anybody know?) that found that startups with a lot of women (I’m remembering 40%) had much MUCH higher survival rates than ones with lower proportions of women. This makes perfect sense to me; a risk-averse population would rein in the potentially destructive tendencies of a risk-seeking population.
Thus I think it does make sense to provide academic training in how to use tools. This should perhaps be coupled with some propaganda about how it is important to set aside some time in the future to get comfortable with tools. (Perhaps it should be presented as risky to not spend time tinkering with tools!)
UPDATE: There’s an interesting (though all-too-brief!) article that mentions differences in the biochemical responses to risk that men and women produce. It says that men produce adrenaline, which is fun. Women produce acetylcholine, which the article says pretty much makes them want to vomit. That could certainly change one’s reaction to risk..