The workplace should be segregated. Maybe.


Increasingly it makes sense to me that the workforce is segregated by gender.

There are, in fact, jobs where mostly women belong, and there are jobs where mostly men belong, and that's fine. It's outdated to think there are no differences between men and women. And once we accept there are differences, we need to study them instead of downplay them.

One of the most difficult parts of coming of age today is that there are no clear paths in the new topography of work. The terms quarterlife crisis and emerging adulthood have come to us as a result of the new scramble to figure out where to go in adult life. In order to create safe, compassionate, growth-oriented paths through adult life, we need to understand where women and men fit best.

I have taken a lot of shots at this topic before. Most notably, I've pointed out that women want to be with kids more than men do. That explains Pew’s findings that most women want part-time jobs rather than full-time jobs after they have kids, but men do not.

But what about gender differences before there are kids? Where do men belong? Where do women belong? Here are three places women do not generally fit:

1. Highly competitive sales jobs are not for most women.

Most women are not happy when they are competing, rather than collaborating with their co-workers, whereas men love competition, according to a study from the University of Chicago. And research from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that even in the case of men who are poor competitors or women who are strong competitors, the gender-based preferences for competition persist.

Women who achieve high levels of success played sports as kids and experienced huge satisfaction with winning. However women are less likely than men to choose competitive environments due to millions of years of evolution encouraging women to mitigate risks to protect themselves for their children. (Tons of studies support this, but my current favorite is from Anne Campbell, psychologist at Durham University in England.)

So who is a good fit for a career in sales? Richard Goldman, COO of Birkman International, a company that helps businesses make intelligent hires by using the Birkman Method for personality assessments, explains that collaborative, team-player types simply do not make good salespeople. When it comes to sales, though, the people who are the best fit for the high-level jobs are those who have an eat-what-you-kill mentality.

2. Men are better at very high-level math, science and engineering.

A 2008 survey of US universities by the National Science Foundation revealed that less than 30% of PhDs in the physical sciences were awarded to women. Higher up the ranks, women make up only about 10% of full professorships in physics-related disciplines. Yet a study from psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams of Cornell University found no evidence of gender bias during the interview and hiring process for science positions.

Now that we have a few decades of data coming from girls who were encouraged to do math, we can say, with a decent amount of certainty, that the average girl is as good at math as the average boy. But in the world of hotshot math, women are outclassed.

One fundamental difference between the male and female brain is gray matter. And University of California at Irvine released solid data to explain why men are good at math.

“Evolution has created two different types of brains designed for equally intelligent behavior,” said Richard Haier, professor of psychology who led the study.

“In general, men have approximately 6.5 times the amount of gray matter related to general intelligence than women, and women have nearly 10 times the amount of white matter related to intelligence than men. Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain, and white matter represents the networking of—or connections between—these processing centers.”

This chart, from Gene Expression, shows the difference in brain makeup.

Also, now that we have a slew of data about Asperger's syndrome, we can say that the people who are incredibly terrible with language (white matter) or incredibly gifted with mathematical thinking (gray matter) are usually boys. Boys, rather than girls, populate the two extreme ends of the bell curve.

So it should not be surprising or controversial that studies repeatedly find that there are large gender differences among extremely gifted math students. More boys are gifted.

Now the world starts making sense. This is why there are more men in math and science positions in universities. This is why the hot-shot companies in Silicon Valley are full of male engineers and not women. And this is why we need to stop complaining that science departments are boys clubs. It's not just the department—high end scientific thinking is a boys club.

3. Men are best suited for the insanely fast-paced startup arena.

More than 95% of venture capital goes to male-run startups. (To be clear, we are talking here about companies that plan to grow to more than $100 million in sales over five years and these companies court investors to achieve that.)

These startups are largely male, and the reason is that women are not interested in the crazy life that startup founders live. Women prefer lifestyle-focused companies where they can have better control over the intersection of their work life and personal life.

I laid out the argument in a post on TechCrunch, but, as you can imagine, it comes down to kids. Women want to spend more time with kids, and they have less desire to give up everything for their company. It would be great if you could do both, but when it comes to startups, you can't.

If you poll women who are CEOs of venture-backed startups as well as mothers, you will find that most women have either lost their marriage or their sanity while trying to run a startup and a family. Of course, no woman (besides me) will say this publicly because it will kill her career as an entrepreneur. One woman, (who has been lauded on TechCrunch for her startup), told me confidentially that she is getting a divorce and her husband thinks her drive is pathological. Which, frankly, is probably true, because much has been written about how most successful entrepreneurs are almost-but-not-quite crazy.

And Sara Lacy has explained the process whereby the boys-club startup founders perpetuate the boys club: if you get through it once, you can keep going, and helping other people to live out the crazy, family-unfriendly pipe-dreams of startup founders.

Many of you will want to tell me stories of the exceptions. I know. I'm one of them. I've driven myself and my ex-husband completely insane with my startup dramas, and I keep doing them. Each time I tell myself I will stay small. I will do a lifestyle business, and then I don't. I think too big and I take in outside funding.

But going into a field where you are the gender minority is very difficult. For one thing, people judge you more harshly, and you are more quickly to be deemed a failure. And it feels uncomfortable. Sure, it's fun to be the only woman in the room because you get a lot of attention, but on balance, Live Science reports that women are uncomfortable in a male-dominated setting.

One of the worst adages of feminism was “you can be anything.” Because you can't. You can't be an iconoclast if you're not. And most of us are not. It's a lonely life. Why encourage it? Look at the paths that have a more sure footing. Look at the lives they create. If you like that life, give it a try.

When we look to create new paths for new careers, look at what real lives look like along the way. If you are 20 and you want to be the rare woman getting a PhD in math, ask yourself, are you really that different from all other people? And if you are 30 and you want to get funding for your startup, ask yourself if you truly are crazy enough to give up sanity for a company. Most of us look for more stable, surefooted ways to go through life. That's rational behavior.


208 replies
Newer Comments »
  1. Kablaam
    Kablaam says:

    The studies might contain findings that are relevant, on a biological level, for many people. But it is dangerous to reduce diversity by enforcing gender norms based on biological research.

    Why? Because it’s at that point where the research is no longer rooted in biology, but in social psychology. You are now talking the language of expectations, socialisation and norms.

    When women and men are primed of their gender before taking a maths test, women perform worse than men. When they are not primed, they perform equally. That’s the psychology of expectation right there.

    Let’s quit reinforcing it.

    • csts
      csts says:

      Well said — thanks, Kablaam.

      Penelope, this is fraught. Could we please talk by phone? I’m a social psychologist who could communicate with you better interactively (two-way phone call) rather than just sending one-way communications (writing). If you’d be willing to email me to suggest a time and to let me send you my phone number, I’d be grateful. And if you enjoy any of what we discuss, well, you‘re the writer!! :)

      Let’s spend less time telling people what they can or can’t do, and more time encouraging those who can to continue, despite the overwhelming burdens, to strive to attain their goals.

    • W Church
      W Church says:

      Ehh… if you look at any social science research, it is based off of weak significant results. Read up on some Beatty & McCroskey, among many others, who bring up the notion that social sciences can only prove around 20% of the time, their theories hold up true while in hard sciences you have to be able to prove up to 80%… that makes a lot more sense, don’t you think? When biological results are way more statistically significant than environmental or social variables, why discount it? Perhaps it makes people feel less in control of their own lives? At any rate, instead of looking at these things as though it’s saying “men are better than women” or “women are better than men”, it’s really saying “men and women are different”. Physiologically, biologically, they’re different, it doesn’t make one better than another.

    • Jean
      Jean says:

      Perfect response Kablaam, completely true. I think the more important question is how do we develop so much grey matter in males (and so little white matter) and replicate that development in females. And conversely, how do we develop the growth of white matter in females and replicate that in males? I (a female) have always had exceptional math skills, but my mother (a doctor) was also good at math and tutored me very well growing up, so I was always well prepared in class. I would LOVE to follow a profession in math, but I didn’t think I could help people with that skill as much as I could as a social worker (my chosen profession)– because I love working with people too. My mom is also in mental health (a child psychiatrist), which is an extremely interesting profession, considering the wide range of effects they are having on children and adults. However, I do believe that women and men have different preferences in terms of the types of jobs they want — competitive vs. helping. But ultimately gender does not determine whether you’ll be successful at a job.

  2. sam
    sam says:

    I eagerly await your post on high-powered, high-status jobs that men are not suited for and that women should be doing.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think we confer high-power and status to people who are willing to give up their personal life for their career. So women are least likely to want these types of jobs.

      On the other hand, looking at family medicine is very interesting. Women are better at it than men, because it takes listening, collaboration, and compassion. (Yes, it’s a stereotype that women have these traits, but it’s a true stereotype.) So, women started dominating the field and then, surprise, family medicine became one of the least prestigious areas of medicine. But women are happy there — the hours are flexible and the work is rewarding. So maybe it doesn’t matter that women in family medicine are not in high-powered, prestigious jobs.


  3. CosetTheTable
    CosetTheTable says:

    Err, No on #2.

    I have no problem with the fact that the next Einstein, the next Newton, the next Perelman will all likely be men. And most STEM departments hiring go out of their way to not descriminate…. but that’s not where the biggest barrier currently is.

    Spend some time with ladies in their senior year of college who are grad school bound— I did a couple years ago. When it came to “fit”, most of them spent a LARGE amount of time not worrying about the weather, or nearby apartments, or the workload, but the attitude toward women in the department, and if they could find an advisor who wasn’t hostile toward women. Some rejected better schools to get better support. One friend, after one semester in the math department, switched to economics because the atmosphere wasn’t poisonous there.

    Most college math departments don’t have to have geniuses teaching. In fact, it can seriously hurt the quality of teaching to have too many of them. MIT, sure. Community Colleges, or 4 year Undergrad-only institutions? The top 1% of thinkers may be very very male on average, but they aren’t required, or even best, at getting material across. Requiring research is good, but it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking in math to be useful to the student and school. The ways STEM departments suck for women usually don’t make things better/nicer/whatever for men, they’re generally just shitty for everyone.

    Oh, and by the way, when it comes to gray vs white matter— higher mathematics would be hurt dramatically as a whole if not enough white matter were dedicated to it.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Hi CosetTheTable,

      I would firstly point out that you offer anecdotes where Penelope offers data. If you believe she is wrong, then perhaps you might point to some published research which supports your position or refutes hers.

      Secondly, you state,
      MIT, sure. Community Colleges, or 4 year Undergrad-only institutions? The top 1% of thinkers may be very very male on average, but they aren’t required, or even best, at getting material across.

      Penelope was making precisely this point, though the figure is probably larger than 1%. She was referring to high-level math and science. High-level mathematics is not taught in any undergraduate course of which I’m aware, even in Germany whose mathematics & exact science graduates are far, far above those of competing countries.

      Thirdly, you state,
      Oh, and by the way, when it comes to gray vs white matter – higher mathematics would be hurt dramatically as a whole if not enough white matter were dedicated to it.

      With respect, that comment makes very little sense, and I don’t see how it could possibly be supported physiologically. It is clear from the research that male brains are better suited to higher level mathematics. You appear to be suggesting that without female brains higher mathematics would suffer. That is clearly not the case.

      Again with respect, your post smacks of an attempt to justify a belief which you hold firmly in spite of available evidence.

      • mattbc
        mattbc says:


        You keep complaining about commenters offering anecdotes, whilst ms. trunk is offering ‘data’… Have you even read the studies she cites? Most of the peer-reviewed, journal published articles she cites to do not stand for the proposition for which she cites them. I’m not going to waste my time going through all of them, but since you seem to be interested in math, let’s take ms. trunk’s second argument:

        “Men are better at very high-level math, science and engineering.”

        To support this notion she cites certain statistics: “less than 30% of PhDs in the physical sciences were awarded to women” & “Higher up the ranks, women make up only about 10% of full professorships in physics-related disciplines”

        She then dismisses gender bias during the interview and hiring process as a possible cause based on the Ceci & Williams article (which is open access, so really, there’s no excuse not to have read the entire study). If you read the rest of what ms. trunk wrote in support of her second argument, she devotes no other pixels to the causes of gender discrimination in phd programs, professorships etc. In other words, this is *the singe piece of evidence* she uses to dismiss all non-biological factors for inequality.

        Now, let’s turn to the article, I’ll quote it

        “Despite frequent assertions that women’s current underrepresentation in math-intensive fields is caused by sex discrimination by grant agencies, journal reviewers, and search committees, the evidence shows women fare as well as men in hiring, funding, and publishing (given comparable resources). That women tend to occupy positions offering fewer resources is not due to women being bypassed in interviewing and hiring or being denied grants and journal publications because of their sex.”

        — ok, let’s assume, arguendo, that the methodology of the article (which is more of a literature review than original research, but whatevs) is sound (it isn’t but let’s assume). And that grant agencies, journal reviewers, and search committees are gender blind. Those are the only three sources of gender discrimination you can think of? Really? What about graduate programs? Are advisors more hostile to women phd candidates? How about male graduate phd candidates – are they as supportive of their women colleagues as they are of their male colleagues? Are women phd candidate expected to carry a higher teaching load than men (and so are shortchanged research time)? How about undergrads – are they more hostile to female TAs than male TAs? ….Where’s the data ruling out those causes for why less than 30% of phd’s go to women (the statistic, you’ll recall, ms. trunk cites at the beginning of her argument). ***

        *** by now you may have read the article, and you may be saying, but what about the three factors the authors assert account for the gender disparity. those three factors? conjecture.

        This type of shoddy reasoning and misrepresentation of the literature pervades ms. trunk’s entire piece.

      • CosetTheTable
        CosetTheTable says:

        Others have pointed to the quality of the cited data- I’ll speak to some of the other bits–

        At post-secondary institutions in the US, generally one must have a masters or a PhD– or be supervised/advised by someone who does– in order to teach. Generally undergraduates find being taught by full professors (usually those with PhDs) to be preferable, or at least college rankings believe they do.

        I am not arguing about the absolute edges of the bell curve and what any piece of research says about it, because one simply does not have to be in the top 2% of an undergraduate math major class to have what it takes to get a PhD in math. Yet women aren’t there in the numbers they’re there at earlier levels. Some of that is choice, some of it very well may be biology, but that’s not the full story.

        Oh, by the way, how are you defining “higher math”? Personally, I think it’s once it’s something publishable, and with REUs, most of my peer group ended up published….. So we’re probably using a different definition.

        Many parts of mathematics are about connections. Many times, the only way to solve a problem is to redefine it under a different discipline. Not only is it important, then, to have colleagues that know each other and interact, but it’s also to have brains working on these problems that aren’t just looking at it in a strictly linear fashion. Different problems take different skillsets, and yes, the more different minds math has working on questions, the more questions we’ll get answers to.

      • Chris
        Chris says:


        “Have you even read the studies she cites?”

        No, in fact I haven’t, nor did I explicitly or implicitly claim that I had, or support the conclusions Penelope has drawn from them. I am also entirely unsurprised that research in this area is of unsatisfactory quality. If you read my posts, the only thing I have said is that people’s individual experiences are not good responses to a post which cites data. You have critiqued the sources Penelope cited and found them wanting – great. I have no intention of challenging your argument, both because I don’t want to expend the effort and because I suspect that you have a point. As I have pointed out to others here, I have not once said that I agreed with Penelope’s position. I just find supposedly educated people contending that their personal experience negates cited data to be unsatisfactory. You’ll notice that all of my comments are to this effect.

  4. EngineerChic
    EngineerChic says:

    I realize that one of your beliefs is that everyone thinks they are more “special” or “unique” than they really are. And in many cases, I agree with you. But when we’re talking about aptitude for specific careers I don’t agree. There are trends, but each career is lived by an individual.

    As suggested by my name, I’m a female engineer. And I’m a pretty damned good one. Part of that is due to the decidedly female traits I bring to the job:
    1) Willingness to listen to another view of the problem.
    2) Desire to ensure the solution is implemented quickly – which means I need to collaborate with other people who participate in that solution
    3) Willingness to ask questions (ie – admit I don’t know it all) to discover optimal solutions
    4) Ability to multi-task. I can run complex calculations while listening in on con calls, or jot down an outline of a pending analysis while in another meeting (and it looks like I’m studiously taking notes about the topic at hand).

    And the best part of all is when I visit customers, they seem disarmed or my gender confuses them just enough that they answer questions & give up information more readily than when men go in.

    BTW – I travel to China to do business 4x/year and the gender difference does not hold up there. At least 50% of the engineers (and over 50% of their managers) are women. Our top performing sales engineers in China are all women. So if you go to a country where women aren’t told from kindergarten on up that, “Wow, you’re good at math – and that is so unusual for a little girl!” you will find that the women are outperforming the men and being rewarded for it.

    • EngineerChic
      EngineerChic says:

      I should mention – that just “being pretty damned good” didn’t mean that I was automatically paid the same as my male coworkers. That took some work on my part – but it was well worth the effort.

      There are few jobs where *just* mental aptitude guarantees success. Even the most brilliant engineers at our company don’t have much influence unless they can also work with others. The smartest & most prickly people are generally avoided by upper management (and even their peers). I’m sure that suits them just fine, but it does limit their upward mobility.

      • Chris M.
        Chris M. says:

        I’m also a female engineer, and would add that when I started studying, male colleagues made it clear that I was going to be discriminated. I wasn’t part of the “gang”, and even though that didn’t stop me from going ahead and getting my degree, other women might not be as willing to stay in a hostile environment like that, which I suspect would be even worse in a “very high level math” sort of environment.

      • Pen
        Pen says:

        Mine too! :D

        Penelope is taking some biological studies and using them to make sweeping pronunciations about things that are much more complex than “just the simple facts” justify.

        It’s particularly annoying when she “whispers” it in a “and no one else will be bold enough to tell you but I am” sort of way.

        Maybe other people would feel less comfortable making huge, sweeping generalizations based on a few facts and some western culture?

        Not that there is nothing wrong with looking at data and asking questions or advancing possible hypotheses. But that’s not what’s taking place in this post. It’s more about the bold, “clear-spoken” Penelope coming out with a controversial post, in my opinion. Unfortunately it seems to come across more like… (nevermind, no-one needs another Godwinism ;)

    • GenerationXpert
      GenerationXpert says:

      @EngineerChic – that’s because China is not a free country. In free countries, women are much less like to choose engineering as a career (because they have the choice).

      • EngineerChic
        EngineerChic says:

        Generation Xpert – why would you say that women would not choose engineering if they had a choice? Engineering is a great career in many respects – it gives you tools to creatively solve problems & test those solutions in real life (does this solution reduce the undesired harmonics, or not?). In a lot of ways it can be fun. And it’s financially rewarding – not on the level of being a surgeon or maybe a lawyer, but it is a lot better pay than many other careers. I’m curious why you say women would not choose it?

      • It's like a stick in my eye.
        It's like a stick in my eye. says:

        I’ve been to China, and worked with people coming over from Chinese colleges. This is what I’ve seen: people who are able to go to school (not everyone has access) can choose what career they like. I’ve seen Chinese students following amazing dreams – things that are difficult to pursue here. In colleges there you will find that paleontology is for paleontologists; and, engineering school is for engineers. Because of my interest in GIS, I have encountered a fair number of Chinese women who work on large scale water projects and desertification issues. No one had a gun to their head. They loved what they did, worked hard for it, and were, by the way, good at it.

        I think the term “free country” is a very silly one. If by free you mean we have a free press in the US, or more personal freedoms, then yes, we enjoy more civil liberties – at least as long as people are willing to work to keep them. But if by “free”, you think that people in other countries have no agency of their own, I’d tell you to get out of the house and meet some people from abroad.

      • Tori
        Tori says:

        Perhaps some engineering departments in the USA are much less likely to be welcoming to women, rather than women in China having no choice. My own personal experience with a state school in New Jersey, while working at Bell Labs: I called a professor in the EE school to inquire about a masters degree. He told me not to bother applying, women shouldn’t go into EE. Needless to say, I didn’t go there, I attended an Ivy League school.

      • EKSwitaj
        EKSwitaj says:

        What definition of “free” are you using that could possibly have any relevance to this discussion? Students do choose their university majors in China.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Hi EngineerChic,

      Firstly, you make the mistake that it seems every other commenter is determined to make: you offer an anecdote in response to data. I took a pee half an hour ago, therefore everybody took a pee half an hour ago. :-S

      Secondly, you state, “I’m an engineer”. Well, “engineer” covers all manner of sins these days, so I’ll assume you work in a traditional engineering discipline such as civil or mechanical engineering.

      Let’s suppose you work in mechanical engineering and you are involved with, say, CFD modelling. Cool. In what way is that “high level math”? Or perhaps you’re in civil engineering, perhaps looking at structural elasticity. Cool. Would you call that “high level math”?

      The reality is, the vast majority of engineers don’t do any mathematics which could be called high level. Feel free to correct me, but even most advanced electrical engineers wouldn’t have an idea about SPDEs on differentiable manifolds, even though they are one of the major areas of research in signals processing.

      I’m sorry, but even if anecdotes were persuasive, yours would not be.

      • EngineerChic
        EngineerChic says:

        Hi Chris,
        Your point about how engineers don’t do “high level math” is well taken. And for the record, I am an electrical engineer. I work with Laplace and Fourier transforms often. That may not be high level math for you. I never said it was. Penelope stated: “Men are better at very high-level math, science and engineering.”

        And please recall, my anecdotal evidence was not only about my own life. It included the many engineers I’ve met in China, and my personal knowledge of our own staff of engineers in China. That is not hard research, but does include roughly 400 subjects (gauging from the stack of business cards in the box marked “China” on my desk).

        Now about you – you sound a bit angry that anyone would doubt P’s research. The tone of your writing is not what I’d expect from someone who’s happy with their life & their choices. Tell me – are you an un-employed (or under-employed) man who’s angry that the mean girls are taking too many of the good jobs?

      • Chris
        Chris says:

        “Tell me – €“ are you an un-employed (or under-employed) man who’s angry that the mean girls are taking too many of the good jobs?”

        Not that it’s any of your business, but no, I’m not. Would it make me any less right if I were?

        I got my PhD in Applied Mathematics at 22, my company (in which I held a 51% stake) was bought out two years ago for 32.4 million Euros, and I’m now head of R&D for our parent company making a 7-figure salary.

        I didn’t start the penis-measuring contest, you did.

      • Chris
        Chris says:

        And, for the record, I don’t actually buy Penelope’s research. This area is notoriously full of hokum. I just hate reactionaries who think that their personal experience negates research.

      • EngineerChic
        EngineerChic says:

        Well Chris, if everything you say is true … Then you are truly an aberration in life. I’ve found that most of the time when someone is hell-bent on telling another person that their personal choices are wrong, it is because that someone is unhappy with their own personal choices.

        Also, if you relate to other people in your life the way that you relate to commenters on this page, then you are extremely unpleasant to be near & it is even MORE unlikely that you have been successful in your career. However, there are plenty of studies that show people tend to reveal their most judgmental & hateful side when they post online – the anonymity of a keyboard makes them feel bold & powerful. Perhaps …. you are a decent, considerate, thoughtful human being in real life. Perhaps you CAN have a discussion without being derisive toward people who have not attacked you. Present company excluded, since I DID insinuate you have a miserable little life of regret & anger – and yes, I did so in retaliation for your angry little insults toward so many smart women who are posting here. IOW – you can attack me all you want, I’ve earned it :)

        But I don’t think you are one of those “nice in real life, asshole online” people. Because here’s the thing … the strongest man in the world doesn’t go around pointing fingers and mocking people he thinks are relatively puny. He doesn’t need to. Think about that the next time you try telling people how stupid they are in an attempt to make yourself feel better.

  5. Pascale Soleil
    Pascale Soleil says:

    Most of the neurological “science” about sex differences is very, very sketchy. Not surprisingly, it tends to justify and support social norms. The ‘argument from nature,’ whether evolutionary or anatomical, has a long and general shameful history. It has been used to keep *name your socially oppressed group here* in their place with a patina of rational legitimacy. Just because it sounds like science, doesn’t mean it’s good science.

    Check out Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine for some perspective.

    Even if there were some universal statistical accuracy to the differences you point to, it would nevertheless be bad to segregate. You’re not neurotypical: do you want to be segregated as a matter of POLICY? I’m not a typical woman: I’ve never had children and I’ve had a varied and unconventional career. I don’t care to be told whom I’m supposed to hang out with professionally.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I never thought about it in terms of policy. You make me think about that — I guess I don’t think segregation should be policy-based so much as self-segregation. I am thinking maybe there is too much emphasis on being different, not following the norms, etc. And maybe we’ve gone overboard and there is a lot to be said for the norms.


      • EngineerChic
        EngineerChic says:

        Wait – so now you are thinking there may be a lot of good in following social norms?

        Tell me, when has that ever worked out for you?

      • KB
        KB says:

        There is already a huge degree of self-segregation by occupation – look to years of sociological research that show this phenomenon, or simply go to the bureau of labor statistics for any given year. You have stated nothing new in suggesting that this should (or could) be the case. Sure, people attempt to make “rational” decisions about their employment, given the influences they have had and whatever natural faculties they have been dealt. But to ignore social forces guiding men and women into the decisions they make and the realities of their situations is, frankly, strange given your penchant to discussing them regarding other topics (the miscarriage/abortion debate over your twitter post immediately comes to mind, among others). We know, for example, that status and power are quite structural – people with more power and status tend to act more agentically, and those without these legitimacies tend to act more communally (and there are interesting interactions with gender when it applies to the task at hand).

        Instead, your post comes across as trying to make waves by implying there should be something more policy oriented (or concrete) about men’s and women’s job choices, and then claiming you hadn’t thought of the implications of your words in hindsight. Big disappointment here.

      • Jean
        Jean says:

        It’s easy for you to tell other women to follow the norms while you get to be one of the special ones, a woman with a man’s personality. My brain is nothing special–just a regular woman’s brain–but I don’t want to join the herd of dummies who would rather collaborate than compete. You make it sound so awful. I’d rather try to be a successful saleswoman, even if I fail miserably.

  6. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Are you really trying to suggest that women should be segregated out of math, science and engineering jobs? What’s wrong with you? So what if the field is dominated by men. That doesn’t mean that the women in that field don’t belong there.

    You even concede that you are one of those exceptions in a male dominated field. Are you suggesting that you should be removed from your field as well? If you believe so strongly in this principle perhaps you should be the first test case.

    • Cathy
      Cathy says:

      Are you really trying to suggest that women should be segregated out of math, science and engineering jobs? What’s wrong with you?


      • GAfish
        GAfish says:

        So remember guys: when you meet that adorable, bright-eyed young woman who wants to be a scientist, be sure to condescendingly pat her on the head and inform her that no matter what she does in science, she’ll never be any good. Direct her to some nice, womanly books on English and teaching wittle kiddies, and tell her to put all that learning and physics knowledge out of her pretty little head.


      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        Title of the post: “The Workplace Should Be Segregated. Maybe.” Title of the section about math, science and engineering: “2. Men are better at very high-level math, science and engineering.” Third to last concluding paragraph: “But going into a field where you are the gender minority is very difficult. For one thing, people judge you more harshly, and you are more quickly to be deemed a failure. And it feels uncomfortable. Sure, it's fun to be the only woman in the room because you get a lot of attention, but on balance, Live Science reports that women are uncomfortable in a male-dominated setting.” So what don’t I comprehend again Chris? Please tell me because after all I am a woman and I need a man like you to guide me to the proper conclusion.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    As the CEO of a media and technology company of a decade and a half – once a startup – and a woman, congratulations on singlehandedly providing men with information to discriminate against us. My work is taught in 1000 business schools via textbooks and I speak regularly to women and girls at colleges and MBA programs about science and technology. There’s no shortage of them. Incidentally I scored in the top 1% of the country in math as did other women I know. Yet here you are telling us that apparently we are no good at it. For shame. Maybe the cows on the farm have gotten to your brain, because if not, you would know that most studies are biased in one way, shape or another, whether through their funding or researcher. I always liked your pieces, albeit controversial, till now. This one is blatantly sexist, and there’s nothing worse than a woman bringing down other women. Consider me unsubcribed. Too bad by the way, because my “failure” of a company has 3/4 of a million readers who trust me.

    • Pen
      Pen says:

      Anonymous, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. Well said (and well backed-up, I must add).

      You rock.

      • cathy
        cathy says:

        I am cathy,from what I can read. It has been sad news and scam to everyone about Voodoo casters or so. But to me they are so real cause one worked for me not quite two weeks. I traveled down to where his shrine his and we both did the ritual and sacrifice. and now me and my ex are living very ok now.I don’t know about you but Voodoo is real;love marriage,finance, job promotion ,lottery Voodoo,poker voodoo golf Voodoo,Law & Court case Spells,it’s all he does. I used my money to purchase everything he used he never collected a dime from. He told me I can repay him anytime with anything from my heart. Now I don’t know how to do that. If you can help or you need his help write him on Thank you

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      As with every other commenter here, you respond to data with anecdotes. Furthermore, being in the “top 1%” of your country for math doesn’t make you good at it. In a country of 200 Million people, that puts you in the top 2 Million people. Good work, I guess? :-S

      • anonymous
        anonymous says:


        You seem to have a lot of time to correspond with others on this controversial topic.

        You also seem to have a lot of emotional investment in your replies.

        Perhaps you should hold your tongue a bit. Arguments that sound rational but support an emotional bias do not warrant that those arguments are automatically valid.

        Yes personal experience does not constitute a scientific study but I likewise have seen many women do very well in mathematical fields.

        Both my mother and sister are majored in mathematics. My sister’s graduate degree is in pure mathematics.

        I myself pursued an english degree. However I share a genetic similarity to both of them.

        In any case Chris you seem too invested to actually offer a purely rational response that does not reek of emotional attachment to an outcome.

      • Chris
        Chris says:

        “You also seem to have a lot of emotional investment in your replies.”

        Point to one comment I’ve made that has even the vaguest hint of an emotional investment.

      • EngineerChic
        EngineerChic says:

        I have to agree with anonymous, Chris. There is a lot of vitriol in your comments. More than is warranted for this sort of discussion. I hear what you are saying that you “hate” people who respond to research with anecdotal evidence. However, there’s a reason we have instinct and it’s often a good clue as to why the results of research need to be reviewed. That is the emotional component many of us are responding to. If you really want a list of examples :
        – even if anecdotes were persuasive, yours would not be.
        – Reading comprehension skills: you do not have them.
        – Furthermore, being in the “top 1%” of your country for math doesn’t make you good at it. In a country of 200 Million people, that puts you in the top 2 Million people. Good work, I guess?
        – Anecdote is not the singular of data. If you want your child to be good at science, this is a lesson you would do well to teach him or her.
        – Your sarcasm is both witty and an excellent response to her comment. Well done. P.S. This is also sarcasm.

  8. Mo
    Mo says:


    I’ve been reading you a while and you often have great insights, but this is just just giving up. It’s Stockholm Syndrome.

    Women are full and complete human beings. Yes, there are some differences, but the similarities overwhelm them. In every category you are talking about, the overlap in male and female abilities is incredibly high. On math scores, although within a culture, men tend to outscore women on exams, Japanese female high school students outscore American male high school students. So do you accept that we should be bringing in Japanese women to run our math departments. Or that American women can’t do as well as Japanese women? If so, they can do better than American men.

    The Ceci and Williams study that you are looking at does not support what you are saying. Men and women scientists have the same level of success WHEN GIVEN THE SAME RESOURCES. But women are not given the same resources as men. So, pretending that this resource deprivation is somehow a natural consequence of women’s lesser abilities is just wishful thinking on your part.

    Here are two good posts, by a PhD economist, about the problems with the Ceci and Williams studies:

    She has more, about why all those brain size studies and such don’t mean much. For one thing, you get completely different answers when you use stereotypically male objects (i.e. blocks) vs female objects. In fact, tests of students in London found that the highest object rotation ability scores (often used to “prove” men are best at math and science) weren’t the male engineers or math majors, but female fashion design students. And tests in prairie voles showed that male/female brain function differences were often serving to OFFSET other biological differences, leading to more similarity in male and female behavior, rather than less.

    Here’s a link to her series on the problems of sex brain difference studies:

    If you want to go to the originals, the books discussed are Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain; Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender; and Rebecca M. Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm:The Flaws in The Science of Sex Differences.

    One of the real issues in all sorts of gender studies is that popularizers tend to grab onto some early study, ignoring the follow ups which reveal it’s flaws. For instance the early studies saying children whose parents divorced were more likely to be depressed. Laters studies showed that the correlation was in fact that parents who were depressed were more likely to have depressed children. Whether or not the parent remained married or got divorced didn’t change the likelihood of their child’s suffering from depression. But you don’t read about that in magazines, do you?

  9. Gwenn
    Gwenn says:

    I completely disagree with your assertions that men make better sales people. I am in the field of health care IT and software sales. I prefer to have a shark type (which can be a man or a woman) and a collaborator (again gender is irrelevant) on each deal. The deals in our sector are long term deal and relationships. If I only have sharks on a deal I find that we lose the customer’s trust more easily, and thereby current and/or future sales. Maybe your assertions are true on short term, uncomplicated one time transactions, but certainly not in deals that are more like marriages than sales.
    I also dislike assertions that rely on majority of people are like this, or that. Real success if for such a minority of people that sweeping generalizations about gender, color or religion are always wrong. Successful people almost always break the rules so generalizations are useless.

  10. Endie
    Endie says:

    Getting from newly-minted PhD to full professorship has very little to do with one’s aptitude in the discipline, and everything to do with how good one is at being a professor. Being a professor is not about being highly skilled in ones discipline, unfortunately– it is about teaching, navigating funding hierarchies, fitting into the system.
    Do not fool yourself into thinking that the best mathematicians are full professors of math. People outside academia are always under this illusion that those of us in it are part of a meritocracy…. HA! If only you could get a glimpse of how little talent and aptitude really matter.

    • Emily
      Emily says:

      It’s also really important to realize that the tenure clock and the biological clock tend to be running at the same time, so if women in math and science professorships feel any of the family pressures that Penelope talks about in her first and third sections, then that can be just as important in determining their success in becoming long-term professors in their fields as any brain differences.

  11. Susan
    Susan says:

    Penelope, I’ve been reading your blogs (am not sure why, except that you have Asperger’s), and I have a very basic question: What the hell is a start-up? Why do people keep creating them? When do they become lasting companies?

    Frankly, relying on science to explain gender differences makes me uncomfortable. The neurobiology of autism is just at its beginning, so many of the studies are still sketchy. I would imagine the science of gender differences is also. And what about what’s happening in China?

    Me, I have a Bachelors, Master’s and Doctorate in special education and autism. I built my career on intelligence and relationships. I know I can figure almost anything out, and I always knew I wanted change and challenge. Am I gifted in math? No. Was I socially directed to become a teacher? Yes. When I was a girl, girls with college degrees could be teachers or nurses….at least in my socio-economic class (working class). But I had a drive to be more than just a teacher for the rest of my life…as did two of my three sisters. Business? Not even an option at that time.

    But I love what I do and have always been happy about it. It has led to a good life, with a marriage, kids, and career. Perhaps if I had been raised to consider going into business I’d be there now.

    Just some thoughts.

  12. bettina pearl
    bettina pearl says:

    I was going to draft a long reply to this, but others have expressed my thoughts much more articulately that I would have. As the mother of a 13 year old who is gifted in science and math but not especially socially skilled, I read this post with rising blood pressure and will not be subjecting myself to her opinions in the future.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Anecdote is not the singular of data. If you want your child to be good at science, this is a lesson you would do well to teach him or her.

      • GAfish
        GAfish says:

        And yet I assure you that stamping down people won’t actually make you more right. You are correct: the plural of anecdote is not data. However, you are in essence denying women the chance to do something they are curious about and may be good at based on studies influenced largely by stereotype threat, social expectations, and gender bias.

        Come out and say it: You are a misogynist who doesn’t want women to have any opportunities beyond the humanities because it breaks your stereotype, Mr. 7 figures.

      • Chris
        Chris says:

        Could you highlight for me the bit where I said women shouldn’t do science? Even the bit where I said I agreed with Penelope’s position would do.

      • Louisa
        Louisa says:

        Chris, exactly what stake do you have in proving Penelope right, here? You seem to be expending a lot of energy and angry-sounding words to knock down women who find fault with the points she makes.

        You want hard data that cultural expectations matter far more than biological differences? Fine. Studies (particularly in the US) have consistently shown that when women are asked to identify their gender before taking a math test, they do markedly worse than men. When not asked to, they perform equally well, within a margin of error. The effect becomes more marked when women are told that the test is being given in order to measure their abilities against those of men:

        Interestingly, other studies have shown that when a woman who projects an air of competence is administering a math test, women do better on it.

      • Chris
        Chris says:

        “You seem to be expending a lot of energy and angry-sounding words to knock down women who find fault with the points she makes.”

        Point to one angry-sounding sentence.

        “Chris, exactly what stake do you have in proving Penelope right, here?”

        Point to one comment where I said I agreed with Penelope.

  13. Paul Basile
    Paul Basile says:

    Penelope you are good at stirring things up and that has value. You cite research, which people debate (and should) and that has value. But research and studies show that diversity really is, measurably GOOD. So what if there are gender differences – of course there are (vive la difference). We don’t fully understand them, we absolutely must not use them to reinforce stereotypes that limit anyone (usually women) but nor should we deny them. Diversity is good. Being different is (and should be recognized by society as) good.

    As for careers, the science is good, really good and will help people get into the right activity. The science of matching people and jobs won’t discriminate by gender – use it, not advice and generalities.

    • mynameisbutters
      mynameisbutters says:

      @Paul, maybe you should read some of the recent articles on the extent of the sexual harassment that occurs in tech fields? If boys were subjected to that sort of constant, violating harassment and objectification, they probably would stay out of tech too.

  14. Camilo Cuesta
    Camilo Cuesta says:

    Another great article. I like that, in this politically correct world, you have the courage to state that women and men are different.

    I’m a software developer, and in my career and workplace, to even hear a female voice is a rare event, let along meeting an actual she-developer. And it allows to keep me focused while I’m at work, so I think to segregate the workplace is not a crazy idea.

    • GAfish
      GAfish says:

      Translation: I can’t control my hormones long enough to do real work, so I blame the ladies.

    • Louisa
      Louisa says:

      Wow. She-developer. That’s…interesting. And people wonder why women feel intimidated about entering the male-dominated fields?

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      This is satire, right? You can’t actually be arguing that women’s voices are too “distracting” while you work and that, as a result, all women should be segregated from being software developers.

  15. Chris
    Chris says:

    I liked points (1) and (3), but feel strongly that you’re not providing a full explanation for (2):

    Now the world starts making sense. This is why there are more men in math and science positions in universities. This is why the hot-shot companies in Silicon Valley are full of male engineers and not women.

    Why, exactly, do social problems have to have *simple* causes? Another way to make the world make sense is to study the problem and find that young women get their first computers several years later than young men (average is women at 18 and men at 16), and that this is old enough that the women might have already decided what they want to do with their life, or at least their college degree, and it’s unlikely to involve something like computer programming. Does that have a biological cause?

    You could further look at how women have less free time than men due to taking on more household tasks (regardless of whether they have children), which gives the men an advantage in doing recreational math or programming tasks that women don’t have. Is that biological?

    Finally, please take a look at this presentation:

    .. which attempts to explain how it’s not plausible that the paper’s described difference in math ability could explain our observations about gender differences in industry.


    – Chris, (computer scientist feeling sick of boys clubs).

  16. J
    J says:

    A lot of commenters have said it better, but I find the idea of pre-determined jobs based on statistics (which are fluid, constantly contradictory and we really know so little) a very dangerous idea.

    Like many other commenters I don’t agree with this post.

    The only place I’m happy there is distinct segregation of the sexes is in the loo.

  17. B
    B says:

    Penelope’s articles used to be about how to work the system. Lately, they seem to be about how to sit there and let the system fuck you while blaming yourself for not “adapting” (the Wisconsin unions article is perhaps even more extreme than this one). The “stockholm syndrome” comment was pretty apt. Penelope writes about backwards American trends as if they’re universal truths. I hope she looks at the rest of the world, sees how things can be different, and starts using her influence to speak against our backward ways instead of cheerleading for them.

  18. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I love working at a startup. I like feeling that my job is really important and that I’m (close to being) important and I love business trips and sometimes even doing overtime. I can’t imagine not doing this. I’m also glad I’m not the one in charge but I’m still young and learning, and I feel like I’m in the best position for me right now. I want a very successful career. I don’t know if that means prestige but I don’t want it to consume my whole life. In the past, I have made decisions based upon what I perceived to be prestigious. For example, in high school I was pushed to do an A level in Math rather than Business Studies, which I would have been much better at. And I was about to go into law for the same reason. I’m so glad I didn’t.

    Also, I love the shout out to Anne Campbell at Durham University because that’s where I got my Masters from.

  19. Brad
    Brad says:

    Let’s say I want to create an elite boys club in the workplace, but I can’t ban women because that might lead to lawsuits.

    All I have to do is say, “I don’t care what your skills are. I don’t care how much you contribute. All you have to do to join my club is destroy your personal life.”

    This explains why so many professions are organized the way they are.

    • Chris
      Chris says:


      Are you genuinely contending that certain roles are more demanding because of a deliberate attempt to create an “old boys club”, rather than the profit motive?

  20. Starrie
    Starrie says:

    I am a female software developer, and keenly aware that programming languages are not purely made up of math, but also of language. To give you an edge, it is also beneficial to have a solid understanding of interface design and usability (hence understanding how humans use computers). The whole idea that men are better at high tech software development is an illusion based on common ignorance about how computer software is made and I am tired of people reinforcing it! I think it is just another “tool” that men w/ competitive-nature use to get ahead in their field. Hey, if you can keep women tricked into thinking they can’t compete in the field so they never really try then you are wiping out a huge percentage of actual and potential competitors. I am not directing this comment so much to Penelope as I am to Camilo.

  21. K
    K says:

    I am a long time reader and this post really annoyed me – as a sucessful scientific researcher and a woman. And a woman without kids… guess I “don’t exist” in the world of this post.

    Then how does one explain that, in the fields of Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology, and Molecular Biology, the amount of women getting B.S and higher degrees is greater than men?

    There’s enough “hot shot math” going around in those fields too, trust me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This argument isn’t about getting a BS — for a college degree, men and women are equally competent, and maybe women are more competent since there are so many more women than men graduating from college.

      This argument is about PhD’s in the sciences, mathematicians solving new equations, engineers that are so good that their company gets acquired just so they will go to the new company.

      I think in the world of average performances, men and women perform the same in all these jobs. If you want to be absolutely great at what you do, you need to do something that you are made for.

      (This, by the way, is why I couldn’t get to the top ranks of the professional beach volleyball tour — I’m not competitive enough.)


      • EngineerChic
        EngineerChic says:

        There is a large gap between being “average” and “so great that a competitor will spend $3B to acquire the company you work for, just in order to acquire your talent.”

        Earlier in the comments Chris derisively said that being in the top 1% of the country’s math skills meant you were just one of 2 million people, implying that the top 1% is not that special. But look at it another way – how “special” do you have to be in order to be happy & have an interesting career? Just being in the top 10% of performance within a company usually means:
        1) Your pay is at least 30% higher than other people with equivalent education & years of experience
        2) Your raises are 2x – 5x the size of others with equivalent education & experience
        3) You have first pick of great projects & assignments

        Seems to me that in order to be well rewarded (and have a better-than-average chance of career happiness) you just need to be in the top 10%. You don’t have to be the absolute BEST mathematician, scientist, or engineer to have that career work out exceptionally well for you.

        So if you are arguing that “Women are very unlikely to be the absolute best in these fields” I don’t see how that leads you to say women should self-segregate out of those fields because they won’t be happy.

      • Chris
        Chris says:

        @EngineerChic I pointed it out derisively because it was a comment that deserved derision. For what it’s worth, I am inclined to agree with your latest comment. This is a valid critique of Penelope’s conclusion. Why didn’t you lead with it rather than a variant of, “I’m a woman, and I’m not dumb, therefore you’re wrong”?

  22. Starrie
    Starrie says:

    @ Chris, I appreciate your post! I got my first computer when I was 11 years old (1985) so maybe that explains why I got into this field! I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living….

  23. Kathryn C
    Kathryn C says:

    This was my favorite post of yours so far. I’m a 33 yr old female and have been working in a male dominated industry (finance) since I graduated from college 11 years ago.

    Not surprising, I wasn’t least bit offended by any of your points because I’ve observed them in my career (since working with all men my entire career mostly), and well, they’re all true from what I’ve seen.

    I think you have 2 ways to live your life as a woman today:

    1) remain bitter about being a woman (even though you wouldn’t admit that you’re bitter), fight your gender differences until you die, & never reach your full potential because you spent your life on a feminist crusade trying to change some things that just won’t change


    2) leverage being a woman and dominate in any field because you’re smart enough to pay attention to gender differences so you know how to navigate around them and get what you want. (Men don’t get this part because their egos get in the way, especially in male dominated industries like finance).

    I prefer the latter. Why spend your life always comparing yourself to men? Do you think Hillary Clinton festers over the fact that some men might be better at math than her? Probably not. Successful women don’t fester & obsess over what men do better than them; they don’t view men as a threat, they view them as peers and often use them to learn from when need be.

    Lastly, the more women try to compare themselves to men in terms of who’s better at what, the more it perpetuates the segregation. This is why I think “women only” clubs and groups are absurd….imagine if there were “men only” investment groups….oh man, bras would be burning.

    Anyway, we’re different, it’s not who’s better at what, we’re just different.

    Learn from people who are different than you are, it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female.

    • Pen
      Pen says:

      Why, thank you. I hadn’t realized there were only two choices. This is really going to simplify things. What a relief.

      • Chris
        Chris says:

        Your sarcasm is both witty and an excellent response to her comment. Well done.

        P.S. This is also sarcasm.

      • mynameisbutters
        mynameisbutters says:

        @Chris, dude, harsh and unproductive. Pen helpfully pointed out the flaw in Kathryn’s “two extremes are the only alternatives” theory.

    • GAfish
      GAfish says:

      Are you saying that women should only do what they are good at or that women should do something poorly and not care? Neither one of them is particularly flattering, though the first informs women that they must choose what they should disregard their desires in favor of the dictates of those pesky ovaries.

      The problem with your logic is that if women have the perception of being terrible across the board, they will not be hired based on that perception. It becomes tautological: You are not good at science because you are a woman, which makes you bad at science. We, the company, don’t want someone who is bad of science. So rather than take the time consuming process of evaluating you based on your merits, we’re going to snap-judge you as inferior and delete your resume. It’s the sex-based form of excluding names that sound “ethnic” because the people are supposedly more likely to be lower class thieves.

      Replace, by the way, every instance of Woman with White Man and replace Man with Chinese Man. You’ll have a few more people shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. There’s a reason most of our engineering PhDs are from another country. Hint: It’s not the fault of the women.

  24. Ralph
    Ralph says:

    There are points in the article that I belive are being overlooked. Men and women are different and that is ok. Due to the differences; there are jobs, careers, and daily activities where men and women perform and respond differently. Due to these differences one can be happier or more engaged in one activity over another. I think she is saying do not force yourself into a career or life situation that you “can do”, but find something you like and has meaning. I would rather see support for the individual in life choices that gives the individual an interesting, happy life or career. Nothing worse than being stuck doing something you “can do”, but do not like or enjoy.

    • Kathryn C
      Kathryn C says:

      @Ralph, just saw your comment. Could not agree more. This post is so interesting to me because many women got so PO-ed and interpreted this post as a male vs female thing….and it’s really not. It’s about noticing differences and making them work for you so you can create a great life for yourself. It’s a victim mentality if you look at it the other way…and I’m not into that. Anyway….it’s interesting. ok, think I’ve overstayed my welcome on this blog post, enough typing for me.

    • Pen
      Pen says:


      What you are saying doesn’t sound like what Penelope is advocating.

      You: “People should figure out what they are good at, and enjoy, and pursue that.”

      Penelope: “Women are like this; men are like that. These “facts” should be used to determine what women and men do (and, by the way, the two genders should be segregated in those choices).”

      I completely agree with your perspective, and could not be more appalled at Penelope’s.

      But then you are not writing for shock value.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I actually think Ralph is right on target. And I think too many times women are told they have to feel like they can do anything, but women don’t *want* to do a lot of stuff. And then we feel like there’s something wrong.

        It’s similar, actually, to men who feel no compunction to care for a baby and they feel bad about it.

        I think we need to stop feeling bad about our differences. It’s okay to talk about them. I just wish we could talk about them without everyone going nuts.


  25. Mike
    Mike says:

    I’m in engineering. My boss is a women. She is brilliant, kind person – and I enjoy working for her. However, she’s an exception. Most women that I knew in my first year of school dropped out, or went into engineering fields where the math is less difficult (i.e. chemical engineering). Does that mean that women are less than men? Maybe some commentators are right in saying that unreflective people could use the above information to assert that. However, I do do not believe that women are my inferiors at all. I have been fortunate to work with many technically competent women. That being said, I DO believe that, on average, most women would not be HAPPY in this kind of work. And that’s something to consider. Not to say that there won’t be some exceptions (perhaps some of the women here)… but the rule is still there…

    • mynameisbutters
      mynameisbutters says:

      @Mike, but do you think they wouldn’t be happy because of the discrimination, harassment, and total disregard for some of the biological realities of being a woman (childbearing and rearing) in many of these workplaces, or do you think they wouldn’t be happy because they “just aren’t good at” things like math or science? Because I think Penelope implies the latter, which is a rather shocking conclusion to be drawing from the studies that she cites.

      Undoubtedly men and women (I don’t happen to believe in the gender binary, but for the sake of brevity…) have differences, but we have such a poor understanding of what causes these differences that to recommend that we stop encouraging women to excel in certain fields is just terribly irresponsible.

  26. Cheryl Roshak
    Cheryl Roshak says:


    Why this more than provocative post that incites such vehemence from most of your readers? What you propose is a solecism filled with anachronistic thinking. Each and every person, be they male or female, is unique. How can you make such blanket statements on gender based specious reasoning?

    I disagree for many of the reasons already stated here. As a mother of two children, now grown, I am an entrepreneur and started my company 22 years ago when my children were young and I was a single parent, as my husband had died many years prior to that. I also had been, as you call it, an aggressive saleswoman, and a graphic designer among other careers.

    Do you envision a world where only men can become doctors or lawyers? Are you saying women should only pursue team-work positions because they have little leadership abilities? Who can become artists then, by your logic? Everyone has to find their own path and find their own meaning, whatever it is that they wish to pursue. I am astounded by this article. What’s gotten into you?

  27. Howard
    Howard says:

    I agree with most everything other than the headlines. “The workplace should be segregated” propagates stereotypes and might discourage young women who don’t fit those stereotypes.

    I think it might be more useful to say that “Non-competitive people should not go into highly competitive jobs”, “People who are poor at math and science should not go into science and math jobs”, and “People who don’t mind a fast-paced life shouldn’t become entrepreneurs” and, “Oh, by the way, isn’t it interesting that most women are not competitive, don’t do well in science and math, and don’t like a fast-paced lifestyle”.

  28. Ben
    Ben says:

    I’m glad Penelope responds to comments and sometimes revises her position (or better explains it). I earlier accused her of just towing the mainstream line, but now I see that she genuinely is trying to look out for women who may be about to unwittingly destroy their own careers.

    I’d like to see a post in the future where Penelope tries to reconcile two of her biggest recurring pieces of advice: 1) “Don’t overreach,” and 2) “Always be an entrepreneur.”

    • Pen
      Pen says:

      If this is Penelope “genuinely trying to look out for women,” well… I guess we don’t need anyone minding the pens full of useless stereotypes. They will be thriving under her care.

      How about we all look out for ourselves, our friends, our co-workers, our families, and our neighbors, and try to help them have a happy, fulfilling life in whatever they find satisfying and are good at.

      I really don’t see the need for gender segregation here. If a particular person is not good at something, then they can pursue something else. Simple as that.

      But then I guess I’m not really a woman. I mean, I look like one, and have the “equipment,” but then, puzzlingly, am not married, don’t have kids, like logic and mechanical things and other – ahem – “manly” pursuits.

      Sure are a lot of exceptions here. Huh. Oh, wait, maybe….

    • D
      D says:

      Revising her position? I’m sure she’s riding a bike at this moment, because she’s quite good at backpedaling.

  29. Anne
    Anne says:

    Oh, blow me.

    I’m a woman; I’m 49, straight as a string, no kids, and I never wanted any. I’ve had a good career in the physical sciences: NASA, the defense industry, and now I work at a government research lab that people fight tooth and claw to get into, where a good, solid half of our student researchers — and most of the really outstanding ones — are women. One of our two Presidential Early Career in Science and Engineering Award recipients is a woman. Women can do just fine in math and science if there’s nobody with their head up their ass telling them that evolutionarily, they’re not supposed to want that kind of thing. Here, play with your dolls and leave the Legos to the boys.

    (BTW, quite a few of the women scientists I know *do* have kids and are good moms. So, it’s not just us hormonal throwbacks who somehow weirdly ended up with female parts and the ability to add and subtract.)

  30. Ron
    Ron says:

    Anne, That’s a funny, passionate, convincing, Penelope-like reply. I’m not a scientist and so I lack your experience, but I did meet some amazingly bright, young, female Fulbrighter science grad students when on I was a Fulbrighter in Norway a few years ago. Fascinating projects involving robotics, field biology, and chemistry. My guess is they’re halfway through their doctorates and female scientists will close the gaps over the next few decades.

  31. r
    r says:

    As a woman with a PhD in mathematics from a highly ranked school, I strongly disagree with point 2, and I’m angry that you’re perpetuating poorly supported stereotypes. I have seen many incredibly mathematically gifted women drop out of PhD programs because they disliked the aggressive, competitive, un-supportive environment. This wasn’t about aptitude for doing PhD level mathematics. I will agree with point 1 that women are more averse to intense competition, and I think this is a huge factor in their leaving math and physics departments (both of which tend to be very aggressive). It is not about ability. Another key factor in high-level mathematics is that women seem to have lower confidence about their abilities and often underestimate their skill.

    Also, as another commenter already noted, the Ceci and Williams study only showed that women do a well as men when they are given the same resources. Futhermore, the study took a lot of data from the biological sciences and was misleading to say that its conclusions were equally applicable to math and physics.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      “I have seen many incredibly mathematically gifted women drop out of PhD programs because they disliked the aggressive, competitive, un-supportive environment.”

      Would it not also be true to say that many men drop out for precisely those reasons? Universities with competitive programs are known to be brutal, even before doctoral research is begun. Cambridge’s Part III’s are but one example.

      • r
        r says:

        Hi Chris,
        Yes, some men drop out for these reasons, but it seems to be a much smaller percentage. I just want to draw a distinction between aggressiveness and mathematical aptitude. Penelope is arguing that women lack both, but I think they just lack the agressiveness (although since you need both to make it in top programs, this holds them back).
        I think that more women would be doing high level math if the atmosphere was more collaborative (and I don’t think that this would have to limit the quality of the research). And yes, there would be more men doing math in this environment too, but I’m guessing the difference would be much more significant for women (especially if you assume Penelope’s point in 1, that there are more aggressive men, and thus fewer un-aggressive men who are turned off by the current math environment).

    • Chickybeth
      Chickybeth says:

      Also, maybe look into research that is actually research and not just a review:

      Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering (2007)

      To say that bias does not exist because you find one article that backs up your claim is ridiculous! I’m pretty sure you even did a post about bias in the way that recommendation letters are written for women which leads to lower hire rates for women in scientific fields. I can’t find your article, but here is another that sums up the findings:

      I’m pretty disappointed in this post and hope you do a bit more research before posting again about how women should stay in the kitchen!

  32. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    What if we had a society where women didn’t get married? They had kids who were raised collectively by the kin (see the Mosuo culture of South China). Would we still have these gender differences in who does startups, etc? In the Mosuo culture, women do all the startups, all the math and science, virtually all the competitive leadership. In that culture, men obey the women.

    Are the results in these partial studies just by-products of our culture?

    I’m always doubtful about sociology/psychology/biology research that overlaps with culture. Cause and effect is difficult to nail down. Moreover, human beings have a tendency toward confirmation bias (that is, to see proof of what we already believe). And most of all, too many of these types of theories in the past have been debunked.

    The studies, theories, and conclusions you discuss here would only ever be used to “prove” that men deserve more income than women.

  33. Bill
    Bill says:

    This column is getting to be better than watching the nightly ‘soaps’. Thank you for the light-hearted humor.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Great. Love this comment. It’s true that girls do better in school. School caters to the strengths of girls. If we could have an honest conversation about the respective strengths of each gender, we could probably do a lot to fix the workplace and fix schools. But people are too wrapped-up in talking about who is the exception to the rule, everyone is an individual, etc. The reality is that we are inherently social people, participating in institutions that require us to work as a group. So broad generalizations are essential for figuring out what will work for society as a whole.


      • Pen
        Pen says:


        Here is something I don’t understand: You say you want to have an open dialogue about these things, and you agree with Ralph that what’s important is that each person “find their bliss,” so-to-speak, career-wise.

        Then you write a blog post with a title that suggests that the genders be separated in the workplace (segregation.. hmmm), and suggest why you think you know which boxes each gender should be placed in.

        Are you surprised that instead of having open dialogue people are starting out angry and defensive? I don’t see how they couldn’t?!

  34. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Like many others who responded here, I love your blog and your honesty, but I was pissed off by this article.

    My message to the young women in my life (and I’ve got three nieces pursuing engineering degrees) is ‘to thine own self be true’. Know yourself, know what you want and build out the life & career that supports it.

    I’d prefer to see you discussing what is required in these fields, so young women AND men can make an informed decision about whether they want to pursue them and how to succeed if they do. The last thing any woman needs is another person telling why she can’t be a success at something. No one is telling the men that they can’t be successful fathers and child care providers.

    • Ben
      Ben says:

      Good points, Anonymous, but there ARE people out there telling us men that we can’t be successful fathers and child care providers. The world is rife with the message that if we devote too much time to family and not enough to our career, we won’t be good “providers.” This is a huge issue for men but we just don’t usually talk about it.
      In fact, I’d say that articles like the one above actually IMPLY that men shouldn’t bother with being good providers when they suggest women take up the less time-consuming jobs while men take up the more time-consuming ones. That’s been the way things were for centuries, with the men at the office, or at war, or creating wealth from overseas colonies… while the women tend to their families. We all know that turned out great, so why don’t we just go back to it? ;-)

      • Hazel
        Hazel says:

        Penelope also believes that men naturally aren’t interested in babies and kids and that those who want to be actively involved in raising children are anomalies. She does not seem to agree that with different social structures, more men would also opt to take be on a “mommy career track.”

    • Ben
      Ben says:

      *When I said “articles like the one above actually IMPLY that men shouldn’t bother with being good providers,” by “providers,” I meant “fathers.” I realize there’s been some linguistic confusion. You said “child care providers” and I knew exactly what you meant… but then I went and used “providers” to indicate someone who provides material wealth to the family without giving much else. Perhaps there’s a better word out there for that role but I couldn’t think of one.

  35. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Most engineering jobs are very good deals, lifestyle-wise. Very consistent amount of work, very steady, very regular (minus dot com bubbles, but that affects tons of careers). You’re right about start-ups though.

  36. Allison Majure
    Allison Majure says:

    “How it is,” yes. “How it can be,” no. And let’s differentiate between women and mothers, or wanna-be mothers. I have no difficulty wihyt your description of “how it is.” For instance, a single doesn’t-want-children female’s white-matter driven capability to read people and relationships while texting a colleague and absorbing a just-in-time learning podcast are exactly what the globalized business world will demand. A man’s (father or male, makes no difference) grey-matter driven propensity to silo single tasks, doing just one and “delegating” others to subordinates or suckers will eventually be revealed for the productivity drag that it truly is. The globalized 24/7 business environment of our future will provide the backdrop to reveal this difference.

  37. Gwyn
    Gwyn says:

    When discussing the bell curve statistic about boys at extreme ends, you completely ignored the science behind this. Intelligence is carried on the X chromosome. A boy can only get ONE X and it must come from his mother. Therefore, his intelligence is driven from 1 source.

    Girls get an X from each parent, thus 2 X chromosomes carrying intellience. Then these 2 chromosome will tend to average eachother. This leads girls to tend towards a norm between the intelligence range of the 2 parents and/or their ancestors.

    Boys will thus end up at extremes because they have no norming. If you get a really high intelligence X from your mother you are at the high end extreme. Also, if a mother had parents with very different intelligence levels, she might have one “average” IQ X and one “genius” X. Her sons are left with the luck of the draw.

    An extreme for a girl requires 2 parents to each carry extreme intelligence on their X chromosomes. Men who marry trophy wives will pass their intelligence to their daughters only, dooming their sons to the intelligence of the “trophy”.

    To use information without knowing the science and mathematice behind why a event occurs is a disservice to your readers. It’s not about girls being different, it’s about science.

    • EngineerChic
      EngineerChic says:

      Gwyn – this is really interesting. And your explanation makes a lot of sense (assuming your facts are right, it’s been many years since I took biology or physiology).

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      I’m screenshotting Gwyn’s post. Hopefully they someday have a contest for “most epic misunderstanding of genetics”, and I can use Gwyn’s post to win it.

    • EKSwitaj
      EKSwitaj says:

      Please cite the studies which demonstrate that a gene or set of genes directly responsible for IQ are on the X chromosome. Thanks.

  38. Ann
    Ann says:

    A lot of people said things much better than I ever could (what a horrible woman I make, so bad with communication), but I did want to point out that you appear to know next to nothing about Aspergers. Throwing that in discredited you completely in my eyes. What you said already made little sense, but when you get something like that so wrong, I figured the rest of this was way off base.

  39. Jason
    Jason says:

    While in engineering school, I’d try to schedule a class or two in education department so I could meet girls. Statistically, my chances were much better there than in the physics lab.

    • Chris M.
      Chris M. says:

      While in engineering school (I’m a woman) I personally arranged for parties bringing together the Education, Psychology, Pedagogy departments and Electrical Engineering. Just so the boys would leave us few female colleagues alone (I had a boyfriend studying Business Administration at the time :-).

  40. Aaron
    Aaron says:


    Have you seen this Slate article that references a study about how female math students in college have more confidence in their own abilities when taught by a female professor rather than a male professor?

    How would this fit with your thoughts on gray matter vs. white matter? Have you seen anything that looks at female mathematicians and scientists that were taught primarliy by female professors? Do you think these top females could compete with top males? Or is your advice that the pool of females is so much smaller and that type of career would not help them reach their goals (either happiness or interestingness) or that they don’t actually know what their goals are?

    Love your writing,
    Aaron Agte

  41. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I would recommend The Gender Delusion by Cordelia Fine (it demonstrates why brain differences are not correlated to gender stereotypes).


  42. Susan
    Susan says:


    The title grabbed my eye for sure! However I’m not sure what you’re trying to fix here.

    You say that the workplace already is self-segregated, with men gravitating toward certain highly competitive fields in specific arenas. Then you clarified by saying that the workforce (probably) should not be segregated as a matter of public policy, but that individuals should sort themselves out, which they are apparently doing right now.

    From the title of the post, I thought you felt there was something that needed to change. Unless you feel there is some social movement or government initiative that forces men and women into careers that they are intellectually and emotionally not suited for (and away from safe, compassionate channels), then the status quo is just fine – there is no problem.

    Focusing on the very top percentage of achievers also skews the argument. Those folks will leave the rest of us in the dust always and they aren’t probably going to comment on a career blog – they have no time. The vast majority of the workforce is made up of B and C students, and those are the ones who most often turn to people like you for career advice.

    Are you just trying to explain the current situation in your blunt fashion? Then the title “Why The Workplace Remains Segregated to a Degree and Mostly at the Very Top End of Specific Fields where Most of You Will Never Venture” might be more apt.

  43. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    As much as it pains me to say this, I have to agree. I’m a female who works as a Sales Engineer for a tech company. I have been doing this work for 14 years, and I am starting to realize how much harder I have to try to understand the technology to the same depth as my peers (all men). I am also much less competitive than my male counterparts, with respect to the sales portion of my job. My approach is to offer exceptional customer service, with the thought process that they will continue to buy from the company that is there for them.

    I am possibly considering a career change in the next few years for all the reasons you laid out. Perhaps stereotypes exist for a reason.

  44. michael
    michael says:

    bring back the separation of the sexes…. all men’s clubs all women’s clubs… and an added bonus no goofy video post! :)

  45. Brandy
    Brandy says:

    Great article! Could you please do a tangent to this article on women working for women bosses? Those difficulties and joys are pieces of the workplace framework that is different in a male dominated industry vs. A female dominated industry.


  46. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    Didn’t have the time to read all comments yet, so perhaps it’s been already addressed, but there is a recent study (I think I read about it in The Economist?) that concludes that even thought the brain of men and women are indeed very different, that the physical difference does not have much influence in what either gender can achieve (including in high math).

Newer Comments »

Comments are closed.