The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Men are focus groups, women are group discussions

Increasingly, research projects are focusing on men as users and purchasers of products and services. This raises the intriguing question of the extent of gender differences in consumer behaviour. That there are differences is obvious, but just how deep-seated and fundamental are they?

One example is male shopping behaviour in-store. Men tend to move faster through shops, browse less (except in magazine and computer stores), and scan more. They also ask fewer questions about where things are, and stop shopping once they have bought what they intended. They like open aisles where they can study products, as they prefer to get their information from written materials. They do not see shopping as a social activity, are unlikely to go with a male friend, and prefer to work out their needs internally rather than discuss them with a partner.

Recent research using various forms of brain scanning has enabled researchers to pinpoint what they believe are fundamental differences in the ways male and female brains process information.

Male brains appear more compartmentalised. Men find it easier to concentrate on one thing at a time, whereas women are better at multi-tasking. This includes the capacity for emotion. Men either feel emotional or not, whereas women can feel emotional while in the midst of activity.

Men have better distance and night vision, are better at tasks that involve three-dimensional manipulation of objects (hence their superior ability at some forms of maths). Women, however, have superior language skills, with more highly developed speech areas in both the left and right brain, and better peripheral vision, including a greater sensitivity to emotional expressions at close range. Some men may have 'feminised' brains and some women 'masculinised' ones due to differences in hormone levels in development.

What impact for qualitative research?

The best explanation of these differences comes from the newly-revived discipline of sociobiology, or evolutionary psychology.

This posits that the physical evolution of the human brain largely ceased about the time man lived in caves and acquired language. Subsequent cultural evolution has been much more rapid, with the result that we live in a modern information age society with brains mainly adapted for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Man as the lunch chaser needs focus, good distance vision, and navigation. Working alone or in groups, he needs basic teamwork communication skills that do not rely on verbal subtleties. Success comes from bringing home the bacon.

The woman's role is in and around the cave, concerned with managing relationships between adults and children; her success being the ability to sustain family life. In such a situation, she needs greater close range sensitivity to mood and emotion, and uses language as part of the bonding process.

Evolutionary psychology illustrates complementary abilities, but cultural evolution has brought power relationships and cultural value judgements. Bringing home the bacon has become significantly more valued than lesser or completely unpaid 'women's' work'.

Despite women's superior verbal skills, women often come off worse in mixed gender interactions. Sensitivity, personal disclosure, and good listening skills can all be re-interpreted as weakness and hesitancy. In mixed sex groups women are interrupted more often and less likely to be given credit for ideas.

Men communicate to share information, rather than establish relationships. They bond by sharing impersonal small talk about subjects like sports. They also work more like a team with different roles. Women bond through personal disclosure, and prefer consensus building.

In qualitative research we value both communication styles. The female model is the group discussion; more exploratory, open, probing, looking for range and depth of responses, and encouraging the new and unpredictable.

Focus groups concentrate on prescribed issues and questions to ensure definite types of information are elicited. They are semi-structured and goal-oriented, more a male-friendly communication style.

However, an awareness of gender differences leads to rethinking of the principles of moderating and managing groups. Strategies for forming can be quite different, while men’s comfort with a team like structure allows for a greater differentiation of roles.

Projective and enabling techniques can be targeted much more specifically at the interests and abilities of men and women, and the moderator’s style, language and approach adapted to fit more naturally with the communication styles of each gender.

And on a lighter note:

"A study in the Washington Post says that women have better verbal skills than men. I just want to say to the authors of that study: Duh." -- Conan O'Brien

COMMUNICATION ( ko-myoo-ni-kay-shon ) n.
Female: The open sharing of thoughts and feelings with one's partner.
Male: Scratching out a note before suddenly taking off for a weekend with the boys.

COMMITMENT ( ko-mit-ment ) n.
Female: A desire to get married and raise a family.
Male: Not trying to pick up other women while out with one's girlfriend.

FLATULENCE ( flach-u-lens ) n.
Female: An embarrassing by-product of digestion.
Male: An endless source of entertainment, self-expression and male bonding.

REMOTE CONTROL ( ri-moht kon-trohl ) n.
Female: A device for changing from one TV channel to another.
Male: A device for scanning through all 75 channels every three minutes.

 

Joanna Chrzanowska
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001