The gender divide when it comes to health tracking online

Stephen Wolfram’s essay, The Personal Analytics of My Life, begins, “One day I’m sure everyone will routinely collect all sorts of data about themselves.”

A Pew Internet survey suggests we have a long way to go: a September 2010 survey found that 27% of internet users age 18+ track their own health data online. There may be more self-tracking happening offline — please post any measures of that phenomenon in the comments.

I was intrigued by Wolfram’s extensive use of his own data exhaust such as email time stamps, calendars, pedometer readings, and keystrokes. He feeds it all into Mathematica, a computational analysis platform, which generates amazing results that no human could create, such as this plot of about 300,000 emails:

The gender divide when it comes to health tracking online

One aspect of his data collection is extremely high-touch: 230,000 pieces of paper that have been scanned in. Yikes — who did that job? He also keeps an online scrapbook/timeline, but does not appear to keep a time diary, relying instead on automagically-generated time stamps to tell him when he’s been working. I’ve been on guard against such diaries after reading “The Test of Time: A busy working mother tries to figure out where all her time is going,” by Brigid Schulte, which resonated with me and many of my working-mom friends.

Looking at Wolfram’s analysis, I wondered if he and his systems could help Schulte do a better job of tracking how she spends her time. I also wondered if she would be envious of his freedom (he admits to working until 3am and rising at 11am — not exactly helpful during those get-the-kids-off-to-school hours).

One of the central themes of Schulte’s article is that she is too busy to make time to figure out what she does with her time. Reading her account of life, you get a sense of a Mars/Venus divide – men are out on the patio enjoying a cigar and contemplating their personal time-use philosophy while women clear the table, sweep the floor, get the kids to bed, and frantically send emails about the next day’s meetings.

I did a quick search for more insights on this Mars/Venus divide and found Matthew Cornell’s post on the Quantified Self blog, Is There a Self-Experimentation Gender Gap? His rough analysis of QS comments, videos, and in-person meetings found a clear difference in participation: about 80% men, 20% women.

Christine McCaull echoed Schulte’s complaint in her comment:

… I’m just too damn busy to measure almost anything regularly except my bank balance, which is calculated for me. Like most women, I’m on a triple shift life plan. I work, I write, I keep a house and raise a big family…

And yet proponents of self-tracking in health need everyone to engage in it and see its worth, not just people with the leisure (or the extreme motivation of a life-changing diagnosis) to do so.

I went back to our data to see if there is a gender divide when it comes to health tracking online. Yes, there is: women are more likely than men to do it.

Breaking it down into the two categories we asked about, we find that 18% of women track their weight, diet, or exercise routine, compared with 13% of men. Twenty-one percent of women track some other health indicators online, compared with 12% of men.

Do you track any aspect of your life? Has it made a difference? Would you be interested in the level of self-quantification that Stephen Wolfram has pursued (assuming you also have the same awesome tools)?

Susannah Fox is Associate Director, Digital Strategy at Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, and blogs at e-patients.net.

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  • carolynthomas

    Hello again Susanne. 

    I’m curious about your interesting gender divide data on self-tracking.  On Matthew Cornell’s recent post about this issue on the Quantified Self
    website – http://quantifiedself.com/ -  his analysis of QS comments, videos, and in-person
    meet-ups found a clear difference in participation: about 80% men, 20%
    women.  (Mind you, these are the most “quantified” of the quantified selfers he’s looking at – the truly self-absorbed keystroke-tracking types, not necessarily those tracking their health practices!)

    Here’s my own idea of self-tracking: I have a little calendar posted on the inside of my bathroom medicine cabinet. On every day that I do at least one hour of exercise (walking, biking, aerobics class, weight training, whatever) I give myself one shiny sparkly sticker.  (Hurray for me!!)  And as a motivator, stickers do work – on the rare week when there are two blank dates showing side by side, my eyes pop out and I reach for my running shoes! 

    See also: “How A Heart Attack Turned Me Into An Information Flâneuse” at: http://myheartsisters.org/2012/03/28/information-flaneuse/

    • carolynthomas

       So sorry, I misspelled your name -  Susannah!!!

      • http://twitter.com/SusannahFox SusannahFox

         No worries! “Susanne” reminds me of my high school French teacher’s pronunciation, a positive association :)

    • http://twitter.com/SusannahFox SusannahFox

       Hi Carolyn!

      The Pew Internet Project’s mission is to track the social impact of the internet. Over the years we have widened our lens to include offline comparisons, but our primary focus remains people’s use (or non-use) of information/communications technology.

      Sept 2010 was the first time we measured self-tracking and we didn’t know what we would find, so we just included two questions and focused on online tracking. We’ll be in the field again in late summer 2012 and I’m collecting ideas for how to expand this line of questioning — email me, please: sfox at pewinternet dot org.

      Also, since it’s in the news today, another direction that self-tracking might take:

      Patients as Partners

      An online network for sufferers

      of inflammatory bowel disease provides some clues to the power

      of collaboration

      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304692804577281463879153408.html

  • Ginger

    I’d guess that far more than 20% of young women track the status of their bodies on a monthly basis, perhaps not online. 

  • dlschermd

    I liked this article. I wrote a piece about health care IT in general a while back: http://davidleescher.com/2011/09/18/gender-differences-in-utilization-of-healthcare-it-a-reflection-of-the-bigger-picture/. Much research needs to be done in the area, to further eHealth.

  • http://twitter.com/SusannahFox SusannahFox

     Thanks, David, for sharing that post!

    The Pew Internet Project & California HealthCare Foundation will be in the field again this Aug/Sept, conducting our every-two-years health survey. I welcome your thoughts on what questions we should repeat or add. Here’s a link to the Sept 2010 survey data if you have time to look at the questionnaire:

    http://www.pewinternet.org/Shared-Content/Data-Sets/2010/September-2010–Health.aspx

  • http://twitter.com/SusannahFox SusannahFox

    I should add that the original post generated a thread of 40 comments that is well worth your time if you’re interested in this topic:

    http://e-patients.net/archives/2012/03/whats-the-future-for-self-tracking.html

    One comment was so meaty we elevated it to a post of its own (and note: it was written by a woman who self-tracks):

    http://e-patients.net/archives/2012/03/visualize-this-an-e-patients-medical-life-history.html

    Ernesto Ramirez is posting a series of essays on this topic, too:

    Talking Data With Your Doc : The Patient
    http://quantifiedself.com/2012/03/talking-data-with-your-doc/

    Talking Data With Your Doc: The Doctors
    http://quantifiedself.com/2012/04/talking-data-with-your-doc-the-doctors/