Are Men & Women Different When It Comes to Work? Let’s Go To The Videotape

A piece of fan mail found its way to me recently that informed me that men and women are innately different in regards to their attitudes towards work. I wrote back — briefly but politely — and my correspondent replied once more. Here’s our exchange.

gender differences email exchange

My correspondent, as you see, recommended a book to me called Taking Sex Differences Seriously. Here’s the first graf of the official summary:

In his new book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, Dr. Steven Rhoads assembles a wealth of scientific evidence showing that sex distinctions are “hardwired” into our biology. They range from the subtle (men get a chemical high from winning while women get one from nursing) to the profound (women with high testosterone levels are more promiscuous, more competitive, and more conflicted about having children than those with average levels.)

Nifty! Perhaps I’ll put it on my list at the library. I am, however, a bit suspicious of agenda-driven social science that’s blurbed entirely by men and Christina Hoff Sommers. I also start to back away slowly from anything that begins with and depends on declaration of gender differences being hardwired. The people who love to talk about innate differences are, even more than zombies, the ones going around repeating, “Brains, brains …” It can get a little scary.

Sure, on average, a male brain is somewhat different from a female one. But there’s huge variability among individuals. Here’s a fun — by which I mean lengthy & dense but fascinating — explainer by a neutral party at The Scientist Magazine:

while both the popular and scientific presses make reference to “male” and “female” brains, the brain is in reality not a unitary organ like the liver or the kidney. It is a compilation of multiple independent yet interacting groups of cells that are subject to both external and internal factors. This is abundantly true for hormonal modulation, with many and varied signal transduction pathways invoked. As a result, it is quite literally impossible for the brain to take on a uniform “maleness” or “femaleness.” Instead, the brain is a mix of relative degrees of masculinization in some areas and feminization in others. On average, there are likely to be some areas that are more strongly feminized in a female and others that are more strongly masculinized in a male, but averages are never predictive of an individual’s profile. Moreover, a mosaic is not a blend—there is not a continuum of maleness to femaleness—and there are many parameters that are neutral in regard to sex, with no consistent differences between males and females.

Good to know, right?

But that’s not important right now! The point is, that email exchange got me thinking about what media I would recommend to my interlocutor from DC in support of the other point of view. Which is, in case it needs to be spelled out, that men and men are not innately different when it comes to their approaches to jobs. Maybe on average men are more competitive and more ambitious; maybe on average women are more collaborative and less combative. But people of all genders want the freedom to perform a task, ideally one they’re good at and from which they gain some satisfaction, and for which they receive a fair wage, or — in the case of unpaid work — commensurate recognition and appreciation.

A lot of employees, especially women, are expressing frustration at their inability to get a job that meets these basic requirements. (“In a sad irony, some research shows that the more that a company promotes its culture as meritocratic, the bigger the gender disparities in pay raises.”) As Anne-Marie Slaughter puts it in her new book Unfinished Business, which incidentally I would highly recommend to anyone, even Christina Hoff Sommers, “the problem isn’t with women, but with work.”

Which got me started on a fun mental project: a list of the best movies about women in the workplace. Not movies necessarily written or directed by women, but movies that nonetheless depict how challenging, stigmatizing, and demoralizing jobs can be. Bonus: they’re all available on Netflix! So you can put together a great educational yet entertaining video playlist for a proto-feminist you know & love.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks dir., 1940). The most talented journalist in the newsroom also wears the best hats. But she claims she’s willing to ditch it all for domesticity and marry a wide-eyed naif from Albany. None of her colleagues believe she’ll be able to abandon such a crucial part of her identity, and her charming cad of a boss, who loves her and her talent, does everything he can to convince her to stay, including landing her fiancé in jail and getting her involved in a breaking story.


All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, dir., 1950).

Bill: To be a good actor or actress or anything else in the theatre means wanting to be that more than anything else in the world.

Eve[softly] Yes, yes it does.

Bill: It means concentration of desire or ambition, and sacrifice such as no other profession demands. And I’ll agree that the man or woman who accepts those terms can’t be ordinary, can’t be just someone. To give so much for almost always so little.

Eve: So little. So little, did you say? Why, if there’s nothing else, there’s applause.


Network (Sidney Lumet, dir., 1976). Faye Dunaway gives the most terrifying, riveting performance of her career — less campy than the one in Mommie Dearest, more dangerous than the one in Bonnie and Clyde — as a ruthless TV exec. Also featuring Marlene Warfield in a great role as an equally tough media savvy communist.


9 to 5 (Colin Higgins, dir., 1980). The title sequence alone, set to Dolly Parton’s original song, made me start to cry when I just re-watched this. There’s so much earnestness here, so many women who want to do their best and get treated fairly and instead get squished by the mundane misogynists of middle management. Once you’re done crying over the injustice of it all, though, this dark comedy about female employees banding together and saying enough is enough will have you giggling throughout.


Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, dir., 1982). This ur-text about gender in the workplace is as thoughtful and poignant as it is funny. It’s so good it changed how its star Dustin Hoffman saw — and, hopefully, treated — women. As he put it, it was never a comedy to him.


Silence Of The Lambs (Jonathan Demme, dir., 1991). Jodie Foster’s stalwart FBI agent/sleuth is the only employee on this list who literally gets come on by a jeering man, and she keeps going. Now that’s demonstrating commitment to the job.


Fargo (The Coens, dir., 1996). Police Chief Marge Gunderson is smart, capable, and cool under pressure. Her devotion to her job is absolute, but that doesn’t mean she can’t also sympathize with her artsy husband’s disappointments; even while tracking down monsters and bringing them to justice, she retains a firm grip on her humanity.


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (David Finscher, dir., 2009). A twisted, engrossing Swedish noir about a freelance researcher and hacker who is brought in to help solve a decades-old mystery. Tell me the part about men getting a high from competition and women getting a high from nursing, again?


Also under consideration: Crooklyn, Up In The Air, Kill Bill Vols 1-2, Jackie Brown, Alien

What have I overlooked? Since so many of these movies are astonishingly white, more diverse selections are especially welcome!



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