By Hillary Johnson
Last weekend, Chris and I attended a marvelous event called Dare 2B Digital, aimed at addressing the gender gap in computer science careers, and at which 7th through 10th grade girls got to play at writing code, crafting business plans, and other techie things.
We held a session called "Teamstorming," leading a group of enthusiastic students in a series of the same learning games we use to teach teams of software developers on big, important enterprise projects to work together collaboratively.
We were completely blown away. The girls weren't just good: they were great. This was the most quick-witted, productive, outgoing and naturally cooperative group of individuals we've ever had the pleasure of teaching, by a significant margin. Chris and I have both mentioned to several people now our experience of finding the teenaged girls smarter, stronger, faster and sharper than their elders of any gender, and have heard a few theories about why this might be, the top three being:
They are unspoiled.
They are female.
They are female and unspoiled.
We laughed, too. But each of these notions has some merit. First, there is the unsullied youth theory: It seems patently obvious that many adults have a great deal of wariness, and weariness, to overcome before they are open to participating freely in a game-based exercise. Our teaching style is based entirely around games and simulations, and the younger a student is, the closer she is to the memory of learning almost entirely though play. It is not, however, particularly true that children are born collaborators, as any parent whose pre-school has a biter enrolled can tell you.
As for the gender question: Are females, by nature or nurture, better collaborators and problem solvers than males? To whatever extent our temperaments are deterministic, my hunch is that girls would respond better to the collaborative exercises, and the boys to the competitive ones. There is research-based evidence that there are gender-based differences in learning styles, but the same research indicates that the variation between individuals is greater than the variation between the genders.
So yes, the girls may benefit from being both female and unspoiled, but this doesn't mean they are superior to the male and the spoiled, it just means they're naturally suited to collaboration and have nothing to unlearn as they encounter collaborative situations.
But by adulthood, we are all engaged in activities that may or may not speak to our true natures. Girls don't tend to play with toy cars, but they grow up to drive real cars in the same numbers as men. And if you believe insurance companies' actuarial tables, they grow up to be the better drivers. On the flip side, I think this means that boys can grow up to be fine collaborators, as good as or better than their female counterparts, despite their greater inclination toward competitive styles.
I am not a big fan of determinism. Things do come out in the wash, and in the long run, even unlearning can be a productive process. As Chris will tell you, part of the reason he values Agile so much is that teamwork and collaboration do not always come naturally to him–he was once a boy who played with cars, after all. He has enjoyed being in a traditional leadership role, and can remember exactly what it was like to resist the urge to "help" a team, instead letting them solve their own problems through self-organization. Which is why he is good at teaching Agile techniques, especially to people who have a lot of un-learning of traditional top-down management styles to do.
The clear outcome, to me, is that the gender bias in the field of software development that persists today is entirely bogus. If boys have an edge when it comes to math–hence their delight in code–and girls have an edge when it comes to collaboration, then it seems stupefyingly clear to me that you're most likely to have a high-functioning team if you have both styles well represented, with plenty of room allowed for something even more important: individuality.