How semantic search helps girls and boys, but in different ways

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While researching something else, I happened upon this rather cheering paper: The effect of semantic technologies on the exploration of the web of knowledge by female and male users. Gender issues only tangentially affect my core research, as I generally focus on linguistic communities that are defined by organizational or professional context, so gender effects are rather diluted by that point. I also prefer collapsing false dichotomies rather than emphasizing difference and division, and so I was very heartened that this article shows how semantic techniques can be unifying.

The study is based on observing the search strategies of a group of male and a group of female students in Taiwan. Given non-semantic search systems to use, the male students tended to search very broadly and shallowly, skimming large numbers of results and following links and going off on tangents to find other results. This enabled them to cover a lot of ground, often finding something useful, but also often left them with a rather chaotic collection of results and references. The female students tended to search very deeply and narrowly, often stopping to read in depth a paper that they had found, and trying to fully grasp the nature of the results that had been returned. This meant they tended to collect fewer results overall, the results tended to be clustered around a single concept, and they risked falling into the rather wonderfully named “similarity holes”. These “similarity holes” are search traps where a single search term or collection of terms leads to a small set of results and are essentially “dead ends”.

How did semantic search help?

When the students were given semantic search tools, the male students continued to search broadly and shallowly but the semantic associations helped them to conceptualize and organize what they were doing. This meant that they ended up with a far more coherent, relevant, and useful set of search results and references. In contrast, the female students using the semantic associations offered, found it far easier to broaden their searches and to come up with alternative search terms and approaches enabling them to avoid and break out of any “similarity holes” they fell into.

Gender effects dissipate

I was very heartened that improvements in technology can be gender-neutral – they can simply be improvements of benefit in different ways to everyone, they don’t have to deliberately try to account for gender difference. I was also very heartened to note that the researchers found that gender differences in search strategies dissipated once students were taught advanced information seeking and knowledge management strategies. Gender differences were only apparent in novice, inexperienced searchers. So, in information seeking work at least, any biological or socially created gender differences are weak and easily overcome with some well directed instruction and semantic techniques are a help rather than a hindrance.