Gender differences in the workplace.

September post for brains unite.

An ideas shed post.

Foreword.                                                                                                                                                By way of a note of explanation to all of our fellow writers and authors on the site i would like to explain that the original title for this months subject should have been “gender inequality in the workplace”. What happened is that Guntash emailed me with the suggestion for that title and i responded by saying that i thought that using just one word ‘inequality” heavily loaded the question/statement in a way that seems to state that gender inequality does exist in the workplace without challenge.  It is almost as if we would then have to say “gender inequality in the workplace exists therefore……” and take our posts from there.  By saying instead ‘gender differences” we could take as a starting point that inequality could be read as a form of difference and create an argument around that. I don’t have a problem with that at all , in fact i would enjoy reading that post and that argument : indeed i hope that in my own post you will see that my work history strongly includes gender and group inequality.  However by changing just one word in the title we can i believe create a broader swathe of viewpoints for example in a similar discussion to the one that James Damore proposed in his now infamous memo that led to his firing from Google.

Introduction.                                                                                                                                        In my post i am going to attempt to discuss various aspects of gender differences in the workplace , firstly by recalling my personal story of being a male nurse in a strongly female workforce and then secondly by trying to put across what i have discovered about trait psychology.  The beginning of my post though will be a discussion about scientific truth as far as i am able to define it and by using 2 examples of scientific ‘truths’ , one of which was realised as being untrue as far back as the 16th century and the other  that many regard today as ‘only a theory’.     What i am not attempting to do here is to create an academic essay with all the right references in the right places , rather i am going to link and highlight to several lectures from a professor of psychology who knows a hell of a lot more about this than i do.

From Copernicus to Einstein.                                                                                                      Over on my website (dirtywetdog) i was saying recently that one of my next projects is to create a ‘wunderkammer’ above and around my computer where i work.  A lot of the objects which will go there currently live next to me on the bookcase and there are many more in store.  Take a look if you will at some of the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ created by their owners : mine will include a lot of my physical ‘memory’ of things that i have done.

Anyway and on with the post : this evening i photographed 2 objects for this post. The first object most will recognise simply as being a clock in a box but might have difficulty with the second. The first is an ex Soviet era warships chronometer made in East Germany and based on the Harrison mechanical chronometer that helped us mariners solve the longitude problem.  The second object is my sextant, briefly its a highly accurate optical device which allows the observer to measure the angle between the observer and 2 other objects.  At sea it allows the observer to measure the angle between the horizon and the sun/moon or star.  Combining a very accurate measurement of angular height and an equally accurate measurement of time allows the mariner to calculate lines of position and ultimately our ships position.  The calculation by the way is based in spherical trigonometry but the observation utilises the Copernican model of the solar system which took the earth as being at the centre and the sun and other bodies revolving around it.    If you know your history then you will know that the Copernican model was accepted canon in the church at the time that Galileo challenged orthodoxy and was put on trial for heresy.  As a side note i can gleefully add that there is good evidence that us mariners had suspected the ‘truth’ of the matter long before Galileo made his observations.


The relevance to this subject is that the ‘science’ of Copernicus simply isn’t ‘true’ in that we now know that the earth isn’t at the centre of even the solar system let alone of the visible universe.  The opposite side is that i can still navigate around the big blue marble using that incorrect model and 2 simple mechanical devices !

Object 3 which isn’t in the photograph is my handheld GPS (global positioning system) receiver which is a miniature marvel of modern science.  GPS without boring you all works on a very accurate time signal derived from satellites except that the time signal HAS to be modified exactly according to Einstein’s principle of general relativity (fast moving objects slow down).  When GPS satellites were first launched many ‘scientists’ even then thought that relativity was ‘just a theory’ and that there would be no need for correction of the time signal.  Even recently a colleague dismissed Einstein’s work as ‘just theory’ which it is in a way because it hasn’t yet been disproved (as Copernicus and even Newton has) and all measurements and observations taken to date across multiple fields exactly correlate mathematically with Einstein’s theory.

So what …..or in millennial parlance now WTF.                                                                             This is now the crux of the matter or the centre of the piece.  If we ask the question :”do gender differences exist” or “does gender inequality exist” we have to find a way of getting at the truth of the matter rather than just expressing our feelings about the case either for or against.  It is of course a highly loaded question and one that is subject to ideological interpretation : thus if you ask a 3rd wave feminist or gender studies professor the question the answer might be “no gender differences , just social constructs and/or “of course gender inequality exists”…probably with some mention of sexism/racism , gender-ism and patriarchy-ism.  What i have to find to even try and answer the question is a tool that has value , validity, has consistency and ‘truth’. By raising one value, lets say mathematical consistency, i have to de-value another : lets say intuition or a politically driven ideology.  I lean towards scientific truth and by that i mean things that can be observed and measured across multiple domains and give consistent valid results.  The highest ‘truth’ in this sense might be mathematical and we might not like the numbers, statistics for example but the numbers stand whether we like them or not.  I could get all historico-dramatic and like Martin Luther declare ‘here i stand’ : that would be a mite pretentious but we all have to take a standpoint somewhere and mine just happens to be rooted in the science of observation and numbers.

Trait psychology.                                                                                                                                    All of the above merely serves as an over-long introduction to a much shorter answer : that the field we should use to approach the question is that of trait psychology and where the best tool available to us within that field is the big 5 model (Costa and Macrae 1985).  If you would like to take a break and have a quick look at the subject before i mash it completely here is the Wiki link :

In my current low level of understanding the Big 5 model is a method of psychometric evaluation of personality using 5 principal ‘Traits’ . The traits themselves can be memorised usefully here as either CANOE or OCEAN (i had to slip a boat in here) and their meaning is as follows.






Each trait should be thought of as a line continuum with the trait characteristic at one end of the line and its opposite descriptor at the other end.  Just by way of an example many people now would recognise the term ‘Extraversion’ which i believe is a Jungian concept and that its opposite is ‘Introversion’.  Well here each trait has 2 end-opposites and what the trait measurement does is give us a tendency on each line. If we now take say trait agreeableness we could find that somebody who is high in that trait would be ‘kind’, ‘polite’ ’empathetic’ and the opposite would be highly disagreeable : unkind, manipulative, cold etc…..we would also find an incredibly high correlation between very low trait agreeableness and the prison population (Petersen).


For now i am not going to take this much further, i am very new to this myself and don’t wish to set myself up to look like a knowledgeable person in the field.  As a nurse i have the most basic grounding in psychology but that level of knowledge is now 40 years out of date : however what i am doing now is studying this seriously myself by way of spending time in Dr Petersen’s classroom.    What i have found out so far though is that each trait can be expressed as a bell curve distribution as can IQ.  What becomes apparent though is that men and women aren’t the same in their distribution on those bell curves and my example would be that women are shifted towards being more agreeable by half a standard deviation which is statistically significant : here is a representation of that.


At this point i am coming close to the limits of my understanding of this area of personality psychology and what i would propose is that you now take the time to watch an out-take of just one of Dr Petersen’s lectures, link below :

Nurse Steve !                                                                                                                                           Now i will finish my post with a personal story.

If by mentioning Copernicus and Einstein, mathematics and general relativity you think that i am some kind of science geek then no : i am a fraud. I have enough mathematics to enable me to navigate a boat with my simple but accurate tools, a sharp pencil and a bit of bum scratching .    Maths really makes me sweat, equations with letters and Greek symbols induce near panic.   Maths was always my weak point in science and i have to really concentrate to understand the significance of statistics.

In 1981 i went from being a rigger in a tough, dirty and dangerous boatyard to being a student nurse in a small district general hospital. I went from an all male environment to an all female one : i was one out of a class of 30.  If today i roughly estimate the percentage over a years worth of student intakes then there would be 2 male out of a total intake just short of 100 students : thus a 2% representation of men in nursing at that time.  I don’t think i actually worked with a qualified male nurse until my last year as a student when i met the male nurse in charge (charge nurse) of a medical ward.  The overall staffing demographic in nursing i would estimate as being roughly the same as my experience with my student intake and by observation i would say that the number of unqualified male care workers : auxiliaries at the time, was even lower.

Medicine was the diametric opposite, nearly every hospital doctor that i met for the first few years was white, upper middle class, public school and male.  Every surgeon and every consultant physician i knew up until i qualified aside from 1 gynae surgeon and one female physician were men usually in their 50’s and up.

Today my boss on a daily basis is a woman (junior sister), her boss is the unit manager (female), her boss is the directorate matron (female) and her boss the divisional nurse and so on right up to the head of the hospital (chief executive and female).  Nursing seems to have hardly changed its demographic at all while medicine has changed and is changing radically.  In my last role as a specialist nurse most of the junior doctors in medicine were female and many more were coming through at specialist registrar level and new consultants.  Today i can regularly expect to work alongside a delightful and competent female consultant, staff grade doctor or specialist registrar and i am happy to say that these are good and positive changes.  Surgery isn’t yet as well represented and there may be some genuinely valid reasons why that is the case.

My observation and our patient’s comments are that we in our department are kind, polite, helpful and professional : ok so that sounds as though my colleagues have a high degree of trait agreeableness.  Within the department what we value ourselves is conscientiousness in our colleagues : whether we are hard workers and attend to the details. Petersen comments that competency and striving for knowledge and skills are sub traits of conscientiousness so that would also seem to fit.  Petersen also states that each trait not only has its ‘dimension’ but also carries with it a set of problems : that agreeable people who are also highly conscientious are for example easy to manipulate and exploit because they do not stand up for themselves.  He also goes on to say that high agreeableness also comes with resentment and bitterness, both things that i see in my fellow nurses.



Let me come to some point of completion then.  I observe that most of my colleagues are female care workers : both qualified nurses and healthcare assistants.  Most of them are women and it is my opinion that most of them are above average in agreeableness and similarly in conscientiousness : my observation seems to correspond with the bell curve distributions for these traits.  Dr Petersen in his lecture clip above also states the difference in trait neuroticism where women tend to be higher in that trait than do men and thus are more prone to anxiety and depression.   It concurs with my personal experience that nurses are firstly women, secondly that they are high in the traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness , are more highly prone to anxiety , depression and work burnout and thirdly that many harbour bitter resentment when their selfless hard work is maligned and denigrated and ill rewarded financially…..for example that this government will hold nurses to less than 1% pay rises year on year  when they will award themselves 10 and 11%.


  1. Steve, I enjoyed reading your article, and I’m not saying that just because I sit high on the agreeableness trait line! It is well reasoned and I especially like that you apply “The Big 5” model to your work life and also that you qualify the limits of your knowledge. As to whether or not “The Big 5” is a theory or merely a set of empirical findings and in part an artefact of factor analysis, well, I’ll leave that to the intellectuals to argue over. The pragmatist in me appreciates how you’ve illustrated that the model works is real life, just like how the application of Copernicus’ flawed science allowed you to get your sextant out and point those maxi yachts in the right direction.


    1. There seems to be genuine utility in the Big 5 model in that i can certainly predict some things with a very high degree of correlation : one being very low trait agreeableness (in men) and the prison population in men….the correlation is apparently close to 100%. I do know that JP and a team of graduate students are finnessing the Big 5 into the Big 10 which may give even more subltelty. I enjoyed writing the piece even though it was the toughest thing i have approached so far.


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