Is Being Male a Talent or an Opportunity?

Pay attention to the difference between talent and opportunity. Sex is both.

Posted Oct 18, 2014

This is a guest post by Raea Rasmussen, Williams College Class of 2015.

Why do some people achieve extraordinarily success? In Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell argues that talent is overrated. He says we pay too little attention to opportunity, because no one makes it to the top without benefiting from fortunate opportunities. Gladwell (2008) discusses cultural, familial, and socioeconomic background as opportunities, there is one huge type of opportunity that is neglected: biological sex.

Innate talent is in your genes, whereas opportunities come from your environment. We argue that sex is both a talent and an opportunity. Being female creates genetic advantages and disadvantages in actual ability. It also shapes the opportunities given to us by our external environment. A case in point, and the issue we discuss, is the way sex influences opportunity and talent in the workplace.

Sex is an opportunity

According to the UC Davis California Study of Women Business Leaders, which conducted a study on the 400 largest public companies in California, women held only 10.9% of the highest-paying executive positions and board seats, and only two companies’ directors and top executives were majority women (53.5%). These results ring true despite the fact that in 2009, female students had an average GPA of 3.10 compared with male student’s 2.90 coming out of high school, and that since 1982, women have earned approximately 29% more colleges degrees than men. Given that we aim to live in a meritocratic society, what could explain this large underrepresentation of women even though women outperform men both in terms of GPA and degrees earned?

The first explanation is evident at the very first stage in hiring—the evaluation of job applicants’ curricula vitae (CVs). Steinpreis et al. (1999) conducted a study in which 238 academic psychologists were asked to evaluate a CV taken from a real psychologist. Four versions of the CV were used: the CV was either from a job application early in the psychologist’s career or a later version she used in her tenure application, and the CV was also manipulated by attaching either a traditionally male or female name to it. Steinpreis et al. (1999) found that both male and female participants were more likely to hire a male candidate than a female candidate, despite the identical CVs presented next to their names. However, no difference was found in the propensity to grant tenure to a candidate based on sex. These results indicate that even if men were graduating with the same GPAs as women and demonstrating the exact same experience to potential employers, they would be significantly more likely to be hired. These are examples of opportunity: When women and men have equal talent, men get opportunities to advance in their careers that are denied to women.

Similar results are evident in politics. In a more recent study (Smith et al., 2007), young undergraduate voters evaluated candidates for president. Again, the candidates had identical CVs, but their names were either traditionally male or female. Overall, the male candidate was judged more positively, rated as having more potential as a presidential candidate, rated as having done a better job in his political career, and rated as having marginally higher chances of winning the race. In addition, participants who evaluated the male candidate indicated they had more confidence in their own ratings of the candidate. Like with professors, female politicians who are equally qualified get fewer opportunities. They are at a disadvantage because of their sex.

There are also fields in which a man is less likely to be hired, even if he possesses the same qualifications as a woman. Riach & Rich (2006) demonstrated this in a field study in which they sent resumes to advertised job openings in either stereotypically male, female, or ambiguous fields in England. Standardized resumes were created for each field, and varied only whether the applicant was a male or a female. Men were more likely to be hired in a stereotypically male field (engineer) but women were more likely to be hired in a stereotypically female field (secretary). Thus, men and women can both benefit from increased opportunities. (There is still a gender gap because generally speaking, men have the advantage in more high pay/status jobs.)

Another reason women have less opportunity is because, especially in executive positions, the qualities deemed valuable are stereotypically male traits. Not only are women stereotyped as being less analytical and less capable leaders than men (Correl & Benard, 2006), their evaluations as managers are in fact punished if they act in an agentic manner (i.e., if they make decisions and produce change). Phelon et al. (2008) found that agentic women are rated as less socially competent than agentic men, and social skills were predictive of hiring decisions for agentic women only. For all other applicants, the predictive factor was competence. In short, women are sometimes punished for being decisive leaders.

Part of the salary gap between sexes is because of hiring and promotion. But only part, because the gap also emerges between men and women within the same positions. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard University economist, found that on average women make 71 cents for every dollar men make in similar professions, and in some fields such as financial specialties, women only make 66% of what men make (Miller, 2014)—and this analysis controls for race, age, education, and hours. Some argue that these numbers overestimate the size of the gap—there is a lot of data on the gap but no simple answers—but everyone agrees there is a gap favoring men. Despite clear evidence of discrimination, on September 15th of this year (2014), congress failed to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act for the third time since 2012). This bill would have forced companies to give an explanation for why workers with similar qualifications were not being paid equally, and thus may have helped lessen the gender wage gap.

Sex is a talent

So sex is an opportunity. It gives people—mostly men—advantages. But sex is also a talent. Remember, opportunities are advantages you get from the world; talents are advantages you’re born with. And despite what you might think if you read Outliers, talent matters—a lot—in a lot of fields.

Biological sex is rarely thought of as a talent, but consider the job market in professional sports. Records from Olympic competitions since 1983 show a steady achievement gap between men and women in both speed and explosiveness. There is a 10.7% difference in running, 8.9% in swimming, and 17.5% in jumping (Lee, 2014). Similar statistics can probably be extrapolated to any sports where size, speed, and strength matter (i.e., every sport except curling). Scientists have found several physiological factors accounting for this disparity, including higher levels of testosterone in men that lead to development of a larger heart and muscles, higher levels of estrogen in women that cause more body fat, and general larger body size of men (Lee, 2014).

This difference in innate talent of men versus women is why sports leagues are separated based on sex. They also result in a significant wage gap. For example, while the highest paid man in the NBA will make $23,500,000 this year (excluding endorsements), the maximum pay for women in the WNBA is just $105,000 per year and the average player made just $72,000 (Garland, 2012). The average NBA player made $5,150,000 in 2012 (Burke, 2012). Based purely on athletic ability and performance, though, perhaps this difference is justified. Men are bigger and faster because of the dumb luck of genes, but they’re still bigger and faster. The same is true in school and work, where students  and employees who perform better in the classroom or the boardroom are more likely to be rewarded with acceptance to prestigious universities and promotions. Talent matters.

Physical differences between sexes are one thing. What about cognitive differences that affect performance at the office? Despite popular claims to the contrary, IQ tests measure intelligence well, and IQ is highly heritable. Intelligence is a kind of cognitive talent. Of course talent for work is about far, far more than intelligence. Nonetheless, it is worth considering possible intelligence gaps. To summarize a large body of research in a very short space: men are smarter in some ways and women are smarter in others, but none of the differences in “cognitive talent” are large.


Men get more opportunities than women. They are treated favorably during hiring, promotion, and on the job, and they get paid more for doing the same job. This is clearly unfair. But isn’t talent unfair too? Why is it fair that you beat me in every sprint just because you were born with good speed genes and I wasn’t? In a way it’s just like opportunity: People with less talent are still disadvantaged and it’s still not their fault. Talent and opportunity are both unfair.

But opportunity is more unfair than talent. If you are treated better than me because of talent, you’re actually better than me; if you are treated better because of opportunity you might not be better than me at all. Opportunity is especially more unfair with respect to sex, because there is strong evidence that women get less opportunity than men and no strong evidence that they are less talented.

This is why it is important to pay attention to the difference between opportunity and talent. Treating people with different levels of talent differently is an inevitable, and in many ways beneficial, part of society. But men should not get more opportunities than women simply because they are men. And unlike talent, we can control how much opportunity we give each other. 


Gladwell, M. (2011). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Back Bay Books.

Peter A. Riach and Judith Rich (2006) An Experimental Investigation of Sexual Discrimination in Hiring in the English Labor Market. The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy: Vol. 6: Iss. 2 (Advances), Article 1.

Phelan, J. E., Moss-Racusin, C. A., & Rudman, L. A. (2008). Competent yet out in the cold: Shifting criteria for hiring reflect backlash toward agentic women. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 32(4), 406-413. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00454.x

Smith, J. L., Paul, D., & Paul, R. (2007). No place for a women: Evidence for gender bias in evaluations of presidential candidates. Basic And Applied Social Psychology, 29(3), 225-233. doi:10.1080/01973530701503069

Steinpreis, R. E., Anders, K. A., & Ritzke, D. (1999). The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae of job applicants and tenure candidates: A national empirical study. Sex Roles, 41(7-8), 509-528. doi:10.1023/A:1018839203698

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