This has been the common wisdom, or at least a stereotype, for quite some time, but apparently female players really are more likely to prefer healing than male players are. The Daedalus Project, one of my favorite sites about MMOs, has published some new results. The site focuses on sociological research about MMOs and MMO players, and among other things, the new results look at the gender and age breakdowns of how MMO players would respond to various hypothetical questions.
There were four questions asked, although one of them is only slightly applicable to WoW. For nice charts (as seen above) and full data, see the site, but I'll summarize the interesting points here, question-by-question. Note that it's possible that this data, being an aggregate of players of different MMOs, does not represent WoW well. I doubt it, however; given WoW's market dominance, most of the respondents probably are WoW players. Edit: note that in my summaries below, I'm merely point out trends, not causes. I'm not trying to say (for instance) that girls heal because they're girls; there are many other factors at play here.
- Good vs. evil. I know Horde and Alliance aren't quite as simple as good and evil, but that's certainly a perception about them anyway, so I think this question still relates to WoW. Results: Younger players are significantly more likely to choose evil than older players; around 36% of players 11–17 said they would choose evil, which trends down through all other age groups until only 15% of those over 35 chose evil. Male players in the mid age groups (18–35) are about 5% more likely to choose evil than females, but there is no effect of gender at the top or bottom age groups.
- Choosing a race. For simplicity, players were asked to choose between human, elf, and undead. Undead was the least popular overall; there was pretty much no effect of age; and female players were strikingly more likely to pick elves.
- Choosing an affinity, out of magic, nature, or technology. This could take the form of where a character derives their power from, or what type of pet they have, etc., depending on the game. I don't see much of a WoW connection here, but the results are: older players don't like technology as much, males like technology much more than females, and females like nature much more than males.
- Damage vs. healing. Players were asked whether they would prefer a damage spell or a healing spell. Female players were at least 10% more likely than male players to prefer healing, over all age brackets. Older players were also slightly more likely to prefer healing.