Softer software for women

Researchers say women respond better to "gentler" computer programs.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published September 24, 2007 10:57PM (UTC)
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Oh, have I got a treat to start your week off right: A brand-new study on sex differences!

I'm not being sarcastic, either -- this study, covered by the Washington Post, isn't an attempt at documenting women's lesser abilities. For her dissertation in computer science, Laura Beckwith (now Dr. Beckwith) decided to pick at an established difference in how men and women interact with software programs: Men are much more likely to use advanced debugging software features. That difference boils down to confidence, according to her research.

Beckwith first had a group of men and women fill out a questionnaire to determine whether they believed they would be able to fix computational errors in a spreadsheet. She then had the participants review spreadsheets and attempt to fix miscalculations. She found that men's confidence didn't affect their use of the debugging tool. However, only those women who expressed confidence in their ability to successfully complete the task used the debugging feature. As the Post puts it, "The women with lower confidence in the task relied instead on what they knew -- editing formulas one by one -- and ended up introducing more bugs than when they started."

Then, she decided to test whether a "gentler presentation of the debugging tool" (I'll admit, that made me bristle a bit) would be more appealing to women. Beckwith developed a debugging tool that allows users to mark a cell in a spreadsheet as "right," "wrong," "seems right maybe" and "seems wrong maybe." As the Post explains, "The 'maybe' buttons worked just like the more certain-seeming ones, but used softer colors to indicate possible errors." She tested this interface in several separate studies and found that women use the debugging tool nearly as often as men; in some studies women used the debugging tool more than men.

Of course, women's confidence isn't a problem computer scientists can fix; software programs are. Luckily, it just so happens Beckwith's now working at Microsoft, where she'll be helping to design software for programmers. That's fantastic! But, it seems like a Band-Aid on a larger cultural wound.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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