Recently when cooking with my boyfriend, I caught him staring at a pan—with five minutes before he had to flip anything!! So I asked him, “Why don’t you empty the dishwasher while you’re waiting?” He gave me a baffled look followed by, “But I’m cooking,” clearly indicating he did not understand my request. Yet I was just as baffled. Can we really be that different?
Talking about gender is such a touchy subject. Most of us are only aware of obvious physical or behavioral attributes that differ between genders. But our differences run deeper—to the way we think, the way we act, and to our primitive desires.
Scientists studying dissimilarities underlying some of the most important gender distinctions are finding differences deeply rooted to the days when men were hunters on the savanna and women were gatherers rearing children near camp. These dissimilar roles and settings pushed men and women to evolve different hormonal balances and distinct brain structures.
This is how our primitive differences tend to show themselves:
My boyfriend (“Hunter”) and I (“Gatherer”) hop into our car. We speed off; he is driving, I am navigating. We pass a red VW bug.
Gatherer: "Awww. That kind of car sings to me.”
Hunter: Looks confused. “How come?”
Gatherer: Attracted to faces in objects. A VW bug has a great face. Even more so, it looks like a baby. Oxytocin releases in gatherer’s body causing "Awwwww."
Hunter: Lacking Oxytocin, obviously does not understand. Wants more “machine” (was true even as a newborn staring at mechanical mobiles rather than faces).
Gatherer: Once on the highway, starts chatting about trip, writing emails, and paying bills.
Hunter: Can’t handle multitasking (remember the dishwasher?) but centralized, linear processing in brain gives advantage in focused driving...or tasks like setting up new laptop.
Gatherer: Uses travel time to get things done. Brain has more connective tissue, both hemispheres operate more evenly. Better at pulling evidence from disparate sources and more successful at multitasking.
Hunter: Progress on the journey is going well, but real navigating is needed to get to final location.
Gatherer: Traveling south, so having troubles reading a map oriented to the north. (Good thing, as an engineer, she can figure out how to read the map upside down!)
Hunter: For him map-reading is easier—geometrical and navigational abilities relate to high testosterone exposure during utero.
Gatherer: Out of luck and getting frustrated.
Hunter and Gatherer: Uh-oh...they’re lost.
Gatherer: Wants to ask for directions.
Hunter: "No!" (testosterone at work). Competitive and not willing to admit navigational weakness, to woman or to his fellow hunters.
Gatherer: Convinces Hunter to pull over. Sees someone at corner. “Yes, him. He’s the one. He is friendly.” (Having evolved in the socially complex camp setting where reading a fellow tribeswoman was key to success, can process the emotion shown on a face even before a man recognizes that he is looking at a face.)
Hunter and Gatherer: Success. Time to park.
Hunter: Good thing he's driving. Parallel parking favors male-oriented geometrical abilities.
Gatherer: Even though she practices a lot, Hunters, on average, are three times faster.
Hunter and Gatherer: Whew. Made it.
Back at work. Here’s what I’m thinking. When designing products or services for women, and especially when designing them for both men and women, it is important to understand differences between genders. It forms the basis for how each will experience a product. Not all differences are obvious. It takes careful scientific research and observation. The payoff? Products that work for and connect with women. And this is good for the whole tribe, both hunters and gatherers.
However, here's a fun footnote: According to a test on the BBC's website, my brain is about 25% female. I do well on some male tests, like mental rotation, as well as the typical female-biased tests. Everyone is a mix. Are you more male in some ways and more female in others?
Whitney Hopkins is a design engineer at Smart Design who crosses over into the insights and strategy division. She holds two degrees from Stanford University—a BA in Product Design and a BS in Human Biology. She is a member of the Femme Den and is a passionate thinking about how design can help better society and the environment. Her first design project at age six—an 'apple-opener' designed to help toothless children bite into an apple—was deemed a success and honored with a National Inventor's contest award. It was a great start. Now Whitney works on various medical, housewares, and technology projects to help clients solve the needs of their users.
The Femme Den is here to save good women from bad products. They started as an underground collective of international women at Smart Design, searching for answers in a world that was not designed for them. They've now grown to a leading team of design researchers, industrial designers, and engineers who are paving the way for a deeper understanding around design and gender. They speak around the world on the topic, working to stimulate positive change in the design and business communities.