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Why Do Men Have the Most Dangerous Jobs?

Societies are more likely to thrive when they keep their women safe.

Key points

  • The most dangerous occupations in the United States are dominated by men, and the fatality rate at work is 10 times greater for men than women.
  • Evolutionary thinking generates at least two possible explanations for this trend.
  • Natural selection may favor men who take risks. Over time, boys and men may become genetically predisposed to pursue dangerous activities.
  • Another possibility is that tribes that kept girls and women safe had an advantage because they were able to maintain a large group size.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the four most dangerous occupations in the United States in 2019 were fishing and hunting, logging, piloting a small plane or helicopter, and roofing. These occupations were the most dangerous because the individuals who did them had the highest likelihood of being killed on the job.

The fatality rate for fishing and hunting was an astonishing 145 deaths per 100,000 workers. For roofing, it was 54 per 100,000. These figures are much higher than the overall fatal work injury rate, which was 3.5 per 100,000 in 2019. (The least dangerous occupations? Teaching, health care, business and finance, and working with computers.)

Men Are More Likely Than Women to Be Killed on the Job

It will not surprise you to learn that the most dangerous occupations are numerically dominated by men. Of the individuals who work in the four most dangerous jobs, more than 90% are men. Consequently, across all occupations, men are much more likely than women to be killed on the job. In 2017, for example, 4,761 men were killed at their workplace, compared to just 386 women. The fatality rate for men that year—5.7 deaths per 100,000 workers—was nearly 10 times greater than the fatality rate for women, 0.6 per 100,000 (DeVore, 2018).

Does the overall picture change much if we look at other nations or different historical periods? Not really. Being a hunter, miner, or warrior has always been dangerous—and men have always done those jobs in greater numbers than women. (Well, maybe not always, as we’ll see.)

Why Do Men Do the Most Dangerous Jobs?

One possibility is that, because men are socialized to believe they should be the primary breadwinner in the family, they are willing to do the most dangerous jobs because those jobs are highly paid. The viability of this explanation, however, fizzles when we learn that the most dangerous jobs aren’t even close to being the best-paid jobs. In 2018, the average salary for logging workers was $41,230. For roofers, it was $42,100 (Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, November 2020).

Another possibility is that men choose to work as hunters, loggers, fishermen, pilots, and roofers because they enjoy working outdoors. This explanation may have some merit, although I doubt it can account for the overwhelming proportion of these jobs that are held by men. After all, many women enjoy working outdoors, too.

A third possibility is that both men and women want to work high-risk jobs but employers routinely reject women’s applications. This explanation seems unlikely to me, as it would be fairly easy for women to point to the extremely skewed numbers of men and women in the jobs and win sex-based discrimination lawsuits in court.

A fourth possibility is that men are motivated to take dangerous jobs (and play hazardous sports like football or pursue dangerous hobbies like base jumping) because they want to prove to themselves and others that they are “real” men.

Evolutionary thinking generates at least two other plausible explanations. The first focuses on the reproductive fitness of individuals who compete against each other, whereas the second focuses on the reproductive fitness of groups that compete against each other. (Reproductive fitness refers to the ability of an individual or group to survive and replicate itself.)

Maybe Natural Selection Favors Men Who Take Risks

In our ancestral past, some men left home to hunt big game, explore new territories, and raid rival tribes. Others did not; they stayed home to pursue domestic activities that were relatively safe.

The men who put themselves in harm’s way and survived were more likely (than the men who stayed home) to earn the tribe’s respect and admiration for providing meat, locating new resources, and vanquishing enemies. These men—the ones who took risks and reaped rewards—became highly desirable mates in the eyes of young women. Consequently, these men were more likely than their cautious brethren to mate and produce offspring.

The men who were drawn to dangerous adventures and managed to survive may have been especially fit, in an evolutionary sense. Over time, their numbers may have increased, and the population of prudent fellows declined. As a result, men and boys today may be genetically predisposed to pursue dangerous activities of all sorts.

Or Maybe Natural Selection Favors Cultural Groups That Keep Girls and Women Safe

In our ancestral past, small-scale tribal groups may have developed different cultural norms and beliefs about who should do the most dangerous work. Some groups assigned the jobs to men and older boys. Others may have been egalitarian and assigned jobs to men and women equally. Still others may have assigned the jobs to women and older girls only.

In this scenario, tribal societies would have reproduced differentially because of their different cultural norms. The groups that routinely asked men to do the most dangerous jobs would have been more likely to survive and thrive. Here’s why.

For most of our history as a species, when cultural groups competed against each other, larger groups usually came out ahead in the long run. (There is strength in numbers.) To maintain or increase its size, a community had to keep its girls and women safe, but boys and men were expendable because (in the memorable words of one researcher) a society that wishes to survive and prosper “needs all the wombs it can get, but a few penises can do the job” (Baumeister, 2007).

If a tribe sent its men into battle and half of them were killed or kidnapped, the next generation could still be full-sized. But if a tribe lost half of its women in battle (or hunting or exploring), the size of the next generation would be greatly reduced. If disaster struck once or twice more, an entire tribe might disappear in the blink of an eye (on the evolutionary timescale).

I don’t know which of these explanations is correct, but the last one makes good sense to me. Cultural groups that believed women should do dangerous jobs put themselves at a huge disadvantage. Very few, if any, survived. As a result, most societies today may take it for granted that men are better suited for dangerous work. They may socialize their boys and young men accordingly.

References

Baumeister, R. (2007, August 24). Is there anything good about men? An invited address to the American Psychological Association. San Francisco, CA.

DeVore, C. (2018, December 19). Fatal employment: Men 10 times more likely than women to be killed at work. Forbes Magazine.

International Safety and Hygiene News. (November 5, 2020). Top 25 most dangerous jobs in the United States.

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