Dazzling Knowledge

Monday, July 24, 2006

Male and Female Computer Programmers Think Differently
According to a study in Science, while male and female computer programmers scored similar results when given a task involving editing code for a virtual calculator, they tended to use different strategies:
Even when males and females perform equally well at computer programming, the two sexes comprehend the job in different ways, according to a Canadian research team.

Anthony Cox, a computer scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and his colleagues challenged 30 graduate or undergraduate computer science students--15 male and 15 female--to take a 300-line Java program that emulates a calculator and make specified changes--such as altering the color of a button--that required the students to find and alter relevant chunks of code.

Both sexes performed equally well, but questioning afterward revealed differences in strategy. Men were more likely to find their way through "codespace" by forming a mental overview of the computer program, whereas women tended to navigate by landmarks whose location they knew.

The authors say the men's "top-down" approach relies more on spatial visualization and is also more "risky" because it involves making educated guesses. That jibes with research showing that men are more risk-tolerant, Cox says, adding, "because of that, the men will gamble and work at a higher level of abstraction." The results will appear in Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance in September.

Psychologist Nora Newcombe of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, notes that spatial visualization seems to be a key to getting around in codespace, just as in physical space--where men and women also tend to use different strategies. But Diane Halpern, a psychologist at Claremont McKenna College in California, says, "I don't think the data really support" the claims about risk-taking, because the study did not directly measure risky behavior. Cox says a follow-up study will include such measures.


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