Do gender differences disappear when men and women share the same profession?

There are gender differences in certain preferences and abilities, on average. Take competition: when running around is described as a race, girls typically run more slowly than usual, while boys start running faster. And whereas women are better at detecting emotions, men tend to score higher at spatial reasoning. Are these average gender differences – in competitiveness, empathy, and systemising – visible even within specific jobs, or do attraction and selection processes smooth out the differences? Should we expect more feminine traits in a female teacher than a male teacher, or will their shared teacherly attributes dilute any gender differences?

Looking across six different professions as various as dentists, environmental inspectors and social science teachers, Vibeke Nielsen at Aarhus University found that the answer depends on the job. She used survey data from 1320 Danish public employees, which means we are drawing conclusions based on ratings of statements like “I find it easy to put myself in somebody else’s place” (empathy) to determine traits, rather than using objective tests.

In many professions, clear gender differences were identified: for instance, 14 per cent of the variability of empathy in dentists is explainable by gender, meaning if you were to switch from a male to a female dentist you wouldn’t be crazy to expect somewhat more concern for your feelings and experiences. For systemising, the biggest gender-based difference was eight per cent, found between male and female environmental inspectors. At the other extreme, among social science teachers, just one per cent of empathy and two per cent of systemising differences were explainable by gender, with no differences in competitiveness found.

What this suggests is that professions such as social science teaching place a narrow band around traits, such as empathy, that are normally grounds for gender differentiation. In contrast, other professions are more multi-faceted: dentistry, for example, is a healing profession which could attract those women who are more stereotypically empathetic – but it is also seen as high-status and prestigious, attracting men who are stereotypically male in terms of having lower empathy. Its selection process may be as stringent as in teaching, but the filters are varied and don’t have the effect of eliminating gender differences.

We shouldn’t, therefore, assume that gender differences will evaporate within specific professions. In fact, given that Denmark is a highly gender-equal society, any within-profession gender differences may be even more pronounced in other cultures.

This is a wake-up call in terms of gender equality. Just because a woman is drawn to a stereotypically masculine profession, doesn’t mean that she has masculine traits and will therefore be immune to structures and processes that are biased against femininity, from winner-takes-all career progression, to biases in how different skills are valued. And it’s a similar story for men in stereotypically female roles.


Nielsen, V. (2014). Differences in Male and Female Employees’ Personal Attributes? Myth or a Reasonable Assumption: Even Within Professions? Gender Issues, 31 (3-4), 163-184 DOI: 10.1007/s12147-014-9123-0

further reading
How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.