Gender Segregation at Work

Some gender gaps in hiring remain astonishingly large.

Posted Jul 09, 2019

In an age of supposed gender-neutral hiring, the job market is still sharply divided between “male” and “female” occupations. Perhaps it is a mistake to promote equality of numbers when what really matters is equality of opportunity.

Many gender differences in employment conform to age-old divisions of labor when women were seen as child-rearers and men were selected for hunting. Not all occupations differ greatly by gender, yet those that do show striking evolutionary patterns that relate to male specialization for hunting and female specialization for child care.

Many of the gender differences in psychology and behavior in earlier societies are likely a product of gender differences in work specialization. Despite several decades of enforcing equal opportunity laws, many stark occupational differences remain. These differences may be illustrated by divergences in the representation of American men and women in various occupations, for which detailed information is available.

Social Skills

Even in the most recently available U.S. data (for 2018, U.S, Statistical Abstracts, 2019), persistent gender differences speak to different interests and skills. That these differences in employment persist is often attributed to discrimination against women in the workforce but the truth is more complex.

Women are much better than men in some fields and communication is one of them. Females learn to speak earlier than males and manifest lifelong verbal superiority. They are faster on the draw verbally speaking and they communicate more information with intimates.

Such differences should be hardly controversial: We can see them clearly in our daily lives. Because women are better at verbal communication, and because they are sensitive to verbal nuances, it is hardly surprising that American companies and organizations would prefer to hire females in their public relations departments. These are desirable, well-paid, occupations. Two-thirds of public relations specialists are women (66 percent).

While women may be skilled at the intricacies of interpersonal relations, it could be argued that they have mastered these skills precisely because they lived in societies where overt power was wielded by men and where their best hope of controlling their own lives was to influence and manipulate powerful men around them. Similarly, women are also over-represented in caregiving professions.


Women remain the primary caregivers for children, the sick, and the elderly. These specializations persist in the American workplace. So far as the sick are concerned, women make up three-quarters of healthcare professionals (75 percent) although they are more likely to work as nurses than as physicians (89 percent of nurses are women, 36 percent of physicians are female). Why so few women are doctors remains puzzling. One hypothesis is that females may have more trouble being accepted as authority figures in medicine.

The fact that women are over-represented in all of the caring professions is not simply because they have learned to care for others, or are more strongly motivated to do so. Another reason may be that many of these occupations are poorly paid and so men tend to avoid them.

Of course, men are systematically excluded from some occupations involving the care of children, on the (shaky) assumption that keeping unrelated men away from children protects them from pedophiles. There are very few men in childcare occupations (just 6 percent). Similarly, elementary and middle school teachers, are mainly female (80 percent) as are teacher assistants (89 percent). Men may avoid these occupations because they are so poorly paid.

Apart from medicine, teaching, and childcare, women are over-represented in other caring professions. They comprise a large majority of social workers (82 percent). They also predominate in special education teachers (88 percent), speech pathologists (96 percent), and dental hygienists (97 percent).

It appears that these occupations do not appeal to men and there may be fewer men due to the presumption that men either have less empathy, and compassion, or present a risk to children. Women also make up the majority in occupations that call for good interpersonal skills, such as human resources (71 percent female).

Taking Risks

If women outperform men in interpersonal-relations-related occupations, men are over-represented in jobs that are either very dangerous or perceived to be risky. They comprise 85 percent of police, 97 percent of loggers, and 76 percent of those employed in farming, fishing, and forestry, which have notoriously high accident rates. No fewer than 94 percent of construction workers are men and they comprise 95 percent of mining machine operators. While mining and construction are certainly not closed to women, it seems likely that in such hyper-masculine environments women would feel unwelcome if not actually at risk of sexual assault. While it is a long time since the heyday of Rosie the Riveter, only 3 percent of contemporary sheet metal workers are women.

Spatial Skills and Research

The same level of gender segregation is evident in many other jobs that depend upon three-dimensional spatial abilities and the kind of analytic thinking involved in science and engineering careers. Women make up approximately a tenth of various types of engineers: e.g., electrical/electronic 9 percent; mechanical 11 percent; computer network architects 10 percent.

Women comprise a fifth of computer programmers (21 percent) and this higher number could reflect the reality that programmers use languages. This field appears hostile to women based on recent controversies and the contributions of leading female pioneers in the field are often ignored.

Although girls receive the same amount of math education as boys, the astounding reality is that only 3 percent of mathematicians are women. This asymmetry has been explained as an under-representation of females in the tiny majority of the population having exceptional math skills.

As to why one needed to be a math genius to work as a mathematician, that may reflect the appalling ineptitude of math education where only the most talented have a hope of truly grasping the subject.

So What?

If there were as many female coal miners as male coal miners, this would not add greatly to the sum of human happiness because few women have a burning desire to mine coal.

Emphasizing gender differences in occupational choices is often criticized as backward-leaning. Yet, anyone wishing to change these divergences must recognize how strong they can be.

As it is, an evolutionary perspective offers the best available explanation of why these occupational differences persist. Yet, it tells us nothing about how they arise during development.

Equally important, an evolutionary account tells us nothing about whether gender differences can be changed in a contemporary world where men and women are converging as never before.