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 It's outdated to think there are no differences between men and women.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.

 

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  1. Firefly
    Firefly says:

    P.S. looks like by reading a lot of the posts on here there is just one of those kind of men posting……….hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

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

    Good luck Firefly. Those situations have a way of souring your outlook for a while and lawsuits can really be a drag, but if you stick it out, I hope it brings you the resolution you deserve. And it’s nice to meet/read of a female electrician. That makes me smile, not from surprise, just from knowing what it takes to get there. I was into cars growing up, but I didn’t love it enough to get to the finish line. Cheers.

    • Firefly
      Firefly says:

      You are right it sour things a bit.

      Im going to tear this company to shreds in court any way i can to the full letter of the law, and they have broken a lot.

      You should know there are a lot of men and women electricans that take pride in their work most act with integrity and professionalism.

      It is sad to me that it only takes one company like this to give the trade a very sour name.

      This company terrorized a woman to the point of having to take prescription drugs. she filed a complaint feb. 2010 and volentarily closed it in aug 2010. her complaints actually included that she was subjected to rumors that she had sexual relations with a dog. This is so far out of bounds i dont even know what to say. An interesting fun fact. the boss who terrorized this woman still works for the company.

      The complaint can be found at pacer.gov do a search for Schnitzer Steel and all federal cases will come up.

      This type of employer bevavior is unacceptable and wont be tolerated. At least not by me. Subjecting women to this type of behavior is illegal and cruel not to mention sickening.
      thanks for your post

  3. Firefly
    Firefly says:

    Its occured to me that i really havent addressed the post at hand because ive have been busy distracting.

    If you want my opinion which im gonna give like it or not.

    My opinion is this: Based on my personal experiences working with men for 20 years the thought of segregation in the workplace is ridiculous. It further nurtures the vicitimization of minorities.

    I would like to know if you know anything about history? Are you aware of the horrible results that heppened when black people were segregated? Are you aware of how many people died as a result of integrating black and white people into the same and equal people they should have always been treated? like human beings? It is a shameful thing what happened in this country for black people to be treated this way.Im white by the way so dont even go in the direction of im some black person who is angry.

    Since you dont seem to have much of a background in history maybe you should take a class. Many people have died in all minority classifications as a result of segregation.

    My highest education completed would be an associates degree Im not real brainy like you are. I do know one thing you lack common sense if your actually serious about what you have written. I personally think you wrote this as some kind of class project to see what kind of reaction you would get. For physcology maybe?

  4. Mohita
    Mohita says:

    This is dumb.
    I like science and math and often feel most in the “flow” or “zone” when thinking about technical problem solving. I work in a biotech and see these trends pretty widely.
    I am bored with kids and while I think I would fight to protect my own, it’s already pretty clear that I would go crazy if surrounded by them all the time, all day long.
    I didn’t play sports growing up, nor am super competitive but I do like to win. I see myself as a very average employee in a technical industry, and therefore, cannot see a basis for your arguments in choices or behaviors exhibited by myself or by my colleagues.
    It doesn’t seem like you have invested any time in any scientific education yourself (you already have enough comments above about the scientific rigor of the data you made a grab at). Goodness. Pick up a book and do some sums or subscribe to Scientific American for a couple of issues.

  5. anna
    anna says:

    I agree that they’re are biological differences between women and men. But:

    a. In this article you only point out areas where men have shown to lead [in studies]. What about areas where women have been shown to lead?

    b. Why are you interested in reinforcing gender biases? What is there to gain in that?

    I completely agree with Kablaam. Where “you are now talking the language of expectations, socialisation, and norms.”

  6. Quantitative female scientist
    Quantitative female scientist says:

    Your reasoning for #2 is at least mostly wrong. Academic science is a tough place (on average) for women for many of the reasons you mentioned above: It is intensely competitive and filled with personal rivalries, and it is an extremely unstable career (unless you get a tenure track position and also get tenure–which the vast majority of PhDs don’t). The period in which scientists are often fighting tooth and claw to publish high-impact papers and land tenure-track positions is the same period in which many women are trying to reproduce. On top of the time demands, this is the same period in which incomes are very low, and young researchers must often move every few years to stay competitive.

    It’s not the gray matter, it’s the culture. I obtained my PhD with an extremely successful female scientist and am not doing postdoctoral research with a male scientist. The male scientist admits very openly to being motivated by rivalries with other labs. My PhD adviser definitely had ‘enemies’/competitors in her intense field, but I never saw evidence that she was motivated by anything other than the science. I’ve found that hanging out in an environment that emphasizes personal gain and competition is repugnant. (For the record, I’m the most competitive person I’ve ever met when it comes to computer and board games. I just think it’s sick to let this kind of competitiveness drive scientific research in a field where lots of lives and $ are at stake.)

    As you probably know, Penelope, stereotype threat undermines performance. I’d be really careful presenting research claiming significant, intrinsic differences between men and women in their capacity for quantitative analysis. Odds are that the threat that the findings might be true will create a far larger gap than might exist anyway. In my experience in a very mathematical/computational field, “intrinsic ability” matters very little, and strategy, hard work, and luck matter a lot more.

    • Quantitative female scientist
      Quantitative female scientist says:

      Correction: “I am *now* doing postdoctoral research with a male scientist…”

    • Jennifer Mercede
      Jennifer Mercede says:

      @ Quantitative female scientist,

      I was until recently also a quantitative female scientist. And although I loved your post, I want to say one thing regarding this quote from you:

      “The period in which scientists are often fighting tooth and claw to publish high-impact papers and land tenure-track positions is the same period in which many women are trying to reproduce.”

      There is a professor in my former department who specializes in demographics, fertility, and the dreaded Evolutionary Psychology (Michael Gurven, UCSB). I vividly remember his presentations on fertility, and the changes in fertility when viewed by different education classes. I have no immediate source to cite, but basically, academics are not reproducing to the same degree that the rest of the world is. For this reason, I would hesitate to extrapolate the already fuzzy idea (that there is a particular time that women are a) getting their PhDs, or b) having children -if at all), and apply that as a factor in any hardship that women in PhD programs might encounter.

      During my time at school there, more men were having children than women, even though women were the bulk of the department. That is anecdotal, but I mention it to remind people that women are not the only ones taxed by the responsibilities of childcare in our society. Even something as simple as being kept awake by crying at night can make daily tasks impossible, and men have ears too.

      I think women are more hurt by the stereotypes surrounding reproduction, than the actual act or responsibilities of reproduction. Stereotype: women have a harder time in grad school because they are also raising children. This leads to the idea that investing in female grad students is more risky – a dangerous idea. If they are having children, then yes, they probably have a harder time. But they could just as easily *not* be having children (which the data I’ve seen support) and also *men* having children have a harder time in grad school (which I have personally seen).

      There are a number of plausible reasons why women have a harder time in grad school than men*. Combatting bias is one of them. I’m basing this statement on (archaeological) discipline specific research done by the NSF where lower incidence of women staying in academia after obtaining a PhD is explained by (sometimes demonstrable) bias, such as being more likely to get dissertation improvement money when lab work, rather than fieldwork is in the methods. Finally, in my experience discrimination/stereotyping is not limited to men. Women are often as guilty of sexism against other women as men are.

      Having nothing to do with you:
      I think this article is loaded with a lot of that. And I’m not impressed by P Trunk’s addendum post where she clarifies her position on a woman’s mean ability, using wonky proxy measures of getting (or ability to get?) a BS versus a PhD as an indicator of average STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) abilities or excellent STEM potential respectively – which is just ridiculous.

      Again, I loved you post. Especially, where you note that perceptions about intrinsic differences can lead to further disparities in success. I just wanted to underscore that along those lines, the women = mother thing is something we would all do well to consider separately. Where academics are concerned – the fertility stats are radically different – for both men and women.

      *In an earlier post I listed the reasons think grad school success is a cultural, rather than biological issue here: http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2011/03/05/the-workplace-should-be-segregated-maybe/#comment-245252. In the interest of not repeating myself, I’ll just say that these can be applied to possible explanations of gender disparities as well.

      Best of luck in your post-doc.

  7. teddybear12
    teddybear12 says:

    I am late to the game here… you are so convinced about the innate differences: men are good at higher math (however you define it), and women want to have children after all that is what they are made for? Right? Not really, not right at all. And mathematically inclined women will not choose this work anyway because one should not go into work which is hard and uncomfortable? Do you think the higher math comes to all these superbly gifted men in their sleep? That they don’t have to work hard for it? And indeed in many math and physics departments social skills are not high on the list of things one has to do… but this is a question of culture in these departments and not a question of a built-in lack of them. Math and social skills are not mutually exclusive, what drives the oddball behavior is that it is more accepted in many of the math and physics departments than in many other parts of life, it is a social microcosm. Girls and women should strive to go wherever they want to go, fine, if they want to become mothers and dedicate themselves to their family, equally fine if they want to go into math, science, engineering. Comparison of different countries shows quite clearly that math and science skills are equally distributed at least in the 99.5% of the often-cited Bell curve which has any relevance in real life.

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  9. Adam
    Adam says:

    Well said but I thought women are to be equal in all ways. But we all know like what you said, women are good at some things & men are good at others.

  10. Lory Manrique-Hyland
    Lory Manrique-Hyland says:

    Please read Dr. Cordelia Fine’s book “Delusions of Gender” – the title says it all. She conducted a thorough survey of the scientific literature on brain science. There are no differences in the male and female brains. Behaviour is learned.

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  12. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    The only thing that men can be said to be better at than women is having a penis. Everything else is subjective to the individual. You forget that more men may be given the opportunity to perform at these jobs, where women are expected to birth and then take part time work, thus skewing the results.

  13. Crystal
    Crystal says:

    This post is old, but I felt compelled to comment. I am a female engineering school graduate who currently works as a Software Engineer.

    I’m so glad my mom used to tell me "you can be anything." It definitely WAS NOT one of the worst adages of feminism as you say. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had parental support when, after watching Jurassic Park when I was six, I walked around spelling deoxyribonucleic acid because I wanted to be a DNA scientist. Maybe my parents wouldn’t have bought me a chemistry set. Maybe I wouldn’t have taken all the highest level math and science classes my high school had to offer and scored the highest on standardized tests that my school had seen in 20 years.

    Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten a full college scholarship if I hadn’t been told all along I was capable.

    In most of my higher level Engineering classes, I was either the only female, or the only AMERICAN female.

    In my very first programming class 30/200 of the students were girls. The next semester, 28 of those girls had switched over to the Arts and Sciences school. The boys didn’t speak to me for the most part. If I wasn’t a head strong loner, the environment would have been toxic for me.

    I am the only female in my department where I work.

    After living through the male dominated system, I have to say attitudes need adjusting. American society does not expect girls to be good at math and science. Young, malleable minds WILL INTERNALIZE THE IDEAS WE GIVE THEM. More people should be telling little girls "you can be anything."

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