The subtle difference
© Westend61/Getty
December 2017

The subtle difference

Are men interested in machines and women are not? Before this question provokes a public outcry, it’s worth taking a look at a few statistics and the changes that are currently taking place. And, most importantly, to keep calm!

More than 5,600 neuroscientific studies in the field of gender difference research have been published since the early 90s – according to an analysis by a working group of the University of Cambridge. A huge number which also proves that the gender discussion is in full swing and an extremely sensitive subject with a decades-long history. A recent example illustrates the point. In the United States, a man was fired in 2017 for having written a memo in which he claimed that there were genetic differences between men and women which manifested themselves in different inclinations. The fact that he was fired for this was met with astonishment in many quarters, particularly since in publications by U.S. psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Gregory L. Jantz we can read that “scientists have discovered approximately 100 gender differences in the brain.” So, are these findings alone a reason for differences between the things that make women and men tick? Not necessarily. Numerous studies have emphasized that it’s not just the hardware (brain) that matters, but also its programming (by the social environment).

Gender-neutral early education has become an important topic. Is this the reason the online shop of toy giant Toys’R’us can be searched by all kinds of criteria except gender-specific ones? But, on the other hand, why is there a market for special surprise eggs for girls? Wherever you look, the gender discussion is a battle on many fronts and quite a few people even feel that the playpen is the front line: toy excavators on one side and glittery Barbies on the other.

A man and a woman in front of a vending machine

That there are differences between males and females when it comes to dealing with technology has also been demonstrated in an investigation by German research scientist Uta Brandes. Brandes, a professor of gender and design in Cologne, performed research into the behavior of people standing in front of ticket vending machines. She found out that men in front of the machines are less afraid of failure, preferring the trial and error method, while women spend more time thinking before pushing a button. But what do these and other investigations prove? How were they conducted? Do the findings represent tendencies, and what conclusions can be drawn from the outcomes? Plus, the question, again, is whether the respective behavior is a consequence of gender-stereotypical socialization experiences or biologically induced. So, we have a sneaking suspicion that studies often raise more questions than provide answers. Remarkably, researchers seem to have a greater interest in manifesting differences between men and women whereas the demonstration of similarities seems to be an attractive proposition to only a few. This minority includes neuroscientist Dr. Lise Eliot who doesn’t think much of the pop psychology statement “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” – the title of a top-selling gender book from the 1990s. If there should be any difference at all, it might be that “Men are from North Dakota and women from South Dakota,” she says. Accordingly, women could absolutely develop a strong interest in technology – provided that they’re exposed to respective social conditioning in early childhood. So, girls, go for that toy excavator if you want to become engineers.

  • 88 %

    of all patents filed in the IT sector between 1980 and 2010 are based on developments by all-male teams. All-female teams filed 2 % of such patents.
    Quelle: National Center for Women & Information Technology 2016
  • 14 %

    of all executives in Silicon Valley are women.
    Quelle: Studie Fenwick & West 2016
User affinity or true technology interest?

Before turning to our next topic, interest in technology, we need to ask how interest should be precisely defined in this context. Does serious interest start with the urge to dismantle a toaster or does just the thrill of using it qualify, too? And what do we mean by technology or, say machines, in the first place? According to Wikipedia, “A machine uses power to apply forces and control movement to perform an intended action.” Claiming that the machine in its early days obviated the need for the physical strength of men and that men subsequently created a new, effective masculine identity for themselves – an identity combining the myth of being a creator, possessing untiring vigor and the glory of an inventive spirit – would be a step far into the realm of feminism. Or as author Georg Seeßlen once wrote: “Man merges with his machine into a new, powerful being, whereas Woman is liberated by her machine.” Machines that liberate women? Now that immediately evokes memories of a blatantly chauvinistic advertising slogan used by a German household appliance brand that, for no less than 50 years, claimed to “know what women want,” namely fridges, washers and dryers.

It’s true that these technical devices are mainly operated by women. In Germany, for instance, still twice as often as they are by men. But notably, even “taz,” a left-liberal German daily, in 2016 praised domestic appliances for their favorable effects on emancipation: “Automatic spin-drying, if you will, expanded the slogan of the ‘1968’ women’s movement, ‘The personal is political,’ by a technical aspect. Vacuum cleaners, irons and washing machines do not seem to be symbols of oppression but of liberation.” The same article quotes an opinion poll conducted by the German TNS-Emnid Institute in which 44 percent of the respondents saw the washing machine as one of the most important inventions of all. South Korean economist Chang Ha-joon even lauds washers as “more revolutionary than the internet.” So when creating an empirically supported connecting link between washing machines, technology and women, it’s possible to come to the conclusion that females have absolutely no problem handling pioneering machines – but maybe women just celebrate the fact that they’ve successfully mastered the operation of a piece of equipment with less fanfare.

Share of women varies from country to country

Still, a look at the number of women in so-called MINT professions, in other words jobs in the fields of math, IT, natural science and technology (engineering), might suggest that women don’t have a strong natural inclination to work in these fields. In Germany, the percentage of males is 70 versus 30 percent women. The situation in Poland and Spain is similar with a third of all budding engineers being females. By contrast, in Italy and Canada – at least in some natural science subjects – more than half of the college students are women, according to a report by McKinsey. India and Australia, as well, report a 50-percent rate of females among the graduates of a given year having majored in some fields of technology and natural science. So: “all clear” on the global gender front? Not quite: In Japan, for instance, only one in five graduates in a MINT subject is female, so there’s still room for improvement. The differences in these statistics reveal that interest in technology does have something to do with socio-cultural conditioning.

Corinna Schittenhelm, Chief Human Resources Officer at Schaeffler, has internal comparative figures from the Greater China and European regions that underpin this proposition: “In Greater China, at 25 percent primarily at the managerial level, we have a high share of women compared to only eight percent in Europe. At specialist level, Greater China with a share of 33 percent is clearly ahead of other regions as well.” On a global scale, the share is 21 percent at Schaeffler. However, there are signs of these percentages changing at Schaeffler as well. A look at trainee positions shows that the share of women there is 30 percent. Chief HR Officer Schittenhelm is hoping for as many female job starters as possible to climb up the career ladder. Her goal in this respect has been clearly stated: “Schaeffler wants to increase the share of women in leadership roles.

A figure from the United States illustrates that women in leadership roles have a pulling effect on other females. A current survey by the “FundersClub” has revealed that U.S. technology start-ups founded by women have twice as many female employees as peer companies with all-male entrepreneurs.

One thing, though, should always be borne in mind in the light of such statistics: An equal balance or – why not? – an even larger percentage of women than men in technical professions will not emerge overnight on the global job market. Even if 90 percent of all newly hired engineers were females, it would take years to arrive at an equal balance due to the current clear majority of men, and firing established men just for the sake of proportional representation would carry the concept of equal opportunity to an absurd extreme.

Electronic gadgets as gender-neutral status symbols

More appropriate today might be a look at the extent to which machines are moving in the direction of electronics in the age of digitalization and the resulting implications for the gender issue in technical professions. Obviously, a lot has happened in terms of attribution due to the invention of the iPhone. Technology no longer stands strictly for skill or force but rather for mental power and communicative strengths – in other words traits the possession of which both men and women like to claim. And – in totally gender-neutral ways as well – the smartphone has evolved into a status symbol at the forefront of gadgets, resulting in the creation of new technical affinities. So it’s perfectly possible that the smartphone as a unisex showcase technology will have a disruptive effect on the gender dispute as well.

Four pioneers
The subtle difference© Lukasz Olek/Getty

The interest of girls in technology is strongest between the age of eleven and 16, then dropping rapidly, according to a Microsoft study. One reason is the lack of female role models although they exist in all parts of the world.

The autodidact
Aya Jaff is regarded as Germany’s digital revolutionary. Born in Iraq, the 21-year-old taught herself to program and co-developed the online stock market game “Tradity.” Today, she is studying economics and sinology in Nuremberg, writing a book about stock market fundamentals and says things like: “I love programming languages!” In 2016, she was the only German scholarship student at Draper University in Silicon Valley, presented a concept for a German hyperloop system to the judging panel there and received an offer by Dirk Ahlborn, founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, to work for him as a freelancer. She chose to finish working on her degree first – it will be interesting to see what happens after that.

The fighter
Sheryl Sandberg may be the most important symbol of female success in Silicon Valley. For five years, she served as chief of staff to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, in 2001, she became vice president of global online sales and operations at Google Inc. and since 2008 has been Facebook’s chief operating officer. In 2013, she released “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Many women have been regarding the bestseller as their personal career bible. Since the unexpected death of her husband two years ago, Sandberg has been raising her two children alone. Her book “Option B” was released in 2017. In it she writes that she had to rethink feminism and that the quest for equal opportunities would have to put a much stronger focus on single mothers.

The teacher
Linda Liukas from Finland is fighting for more women to take an interest in computers and founded “Rails Girls,” an initiative enabling women to learn how to program. Now, free computer courses for women and girls are conducted around the globe from Cracow to New Zealand. She says: “Programming code is the language of the 21st century.” In addition, the 31-year-old wrote “Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding.” She raised 380,000 dollars for the project, the largest amount of crowd funding to have ever been achieved for a children’s book – the illustrations in the book, by the way, were created by Liukas as well.

The Factory worker
Zhou Qunfei is the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. The 47-year-old Chinese comes from a poor family, left school at the age of 16 and went on to work on the assembly line of a watch glass manufacturer. At the age of 22, she started her first company. Today, her Lens Technology group produces cell phone touchscreens supplied to companies such as Apple and Samsung. Lens Technology employs 90,000 people and Zhou Qunfei’s assets are estimated to amount to 11 billion dollars. She’s known for occasionally reminding her senior managers to sit up straight in meetings. China is said to be a country that has more female self-made billionaires than any other, the reason being the promotion of equal opportunities by the communist party under Mao Zedong.

Wiebke Brauer
Author Wiebke Brauer
Even as a child Wiebke Brauer who hails from Hamburg enjoyed taking her toy cars apart and has been fascinated by machines ever since. However, in spite of her fascination with technology, ticket vending machines drive her to despair.