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Why Women and Men (Still) Take Different Jobs

Large gender differences in caring and daring are in decline.

Despite broad convergences in the psychology and behavior of the sexes, some occupations remain very segregated by gender. Some of these differences reflect evolutionary specializations of men and women.

Most Gender Differences are Small

While there are large differences in jobs taken by men and women in some fields, the underlying differences in the cognitive abilities that are relevant to those particular jobs are often relatively small. For example, there is little difference in mathematical ability between men and women—yet there is a large split in employment, with only 3 percent of U.S. mathematicians being women.

One plausible reason for this gender divide in employment is that men are over-represented in the highest tier of mathematical ability. This difference is possibly due to a specific masculine advantage in three-dimensional spatial ability. This advantage is not encoded in genes but could be one consequence of brain masculinization by sex hormones prior to birth.

Because the distribution of males and females is substantially overlapping on most cognitive capacities, knowing a person's gender is of no use in predicting their math scores. Yet, gender can be surprisingly useful in predicting occupations.

While differences in cognitive abilities are vanishingly small, differences in psychology and behavior can be quite large, so that there are still far more women in caring professions and far more men in highly risky jobs like forestry, fishing, construction, mining, and police.

These differences speak to an ancient gender specialization in work where women did most of the childcare close to home whereas men conducted their economic activities (whether farming or wage labor) at a greater distance from home.

Many Gender Differences in Psychology are Disappearing

Given such gender specialization, in all societies prior to the 20th century, one might expect that natural selection would favor nurturing women who avoided risks and men who were willing to take greater risks—whether in intimidating sexual rivals or in securing resources to support their dependent offspring.

This is mostly what historians find—at least until they look at recent history. As to risk-taking, one finds that in recent years, women are increasingly willing to break laws—for example, by using illicit drugs. Young women have a greatly increased risk profile and teenage girls are now considered to be as dangerous on the roads as teen boys are [1]. Meanwhile, declining rates of violent crime suggest that young men today are more risk-averse than men of earlier generations.

Relatively few young women are interested in staying at home to care for children, deciding instead to go to work and use the services of commercial daycare providers. This may be due to the fact that some women do not find caring for young children rewarding—in one survey, it was rated on par with vacuuming [2].

For their part, young fathers seem much more interested in caring for small children than their fathers, or grandfathers, were. These convergences in the psychology and behavior of men and women are most plausibly explained by the fact that there was a large increase in the proportion of married women in paid employment after the 1950s.

Given that women began to play an economic role that was indistinguishable from that of men, there was a corresponding shift in psychology and behavior in the direction of female competitiveness and risk-taking.

While those general trends are quite apparent, gender differences in occupations remain. Why?

Why Gender Differences in Jobs Persist

While gender differences in brain biology are real, and while they can be accentuated by gender differences in anatomy (e. g., hand size, upper body musculature), it is wrong to assume that our suitability for a specific gender-segregated occupation is fixed at birth.

With appropriate experiences and training, both males and females can succeed in any occupation. Such flexibility is illustrated by the increased risk-taking of young women in modern societies.

So why are there so few male nurses and so few female coal miners? Modern women may be more willing to drive when drunk, yet very few choose to mine coal or cut down trees. Evidently, few women are willing to risk their lives to make a living.

Some men are willing to assume high levels of risk, although these may be a minority of the male population. The reasons for such choices are complex, including macho socialization, high testosterone, and a desire for good wages.

Similarly, although men are more interested in caring for their own children, there are still very few male nurses or elementary school teachers. One could assume that men's interest in caring for others does not rise to the level found in many women.

Once again, the reasons for this are complex, including physiology, socialization, and sensation-seeking.


1 Teenage girls no longer the safer bet (2012). U.S. News.…

2 Kahneman, D., Kreuger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwartz, N., and Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience. Science, 308 (5702), 1776-1780.