Who Takes More Risks: Men or Women?
Studies of risk-taking have traditionally found that men are more prone to it than women. But a team of researchers thinks that has everything to do with how we, and researchers, typically define "risk."
Past findings could have been clouded by a bias toward masculine-coded risk-taking, such as gambling or skydiving, psychologists at the University of Exeter and the University of Melbourne found.
When risk-taking opportunities are neutralized to be less stereotypically male, men and women are equally prone to take a risk, they found by comparing old ways of measuring risk-taking to new ones. In fact, depending on the situation, women can be the biggest risk-takers of all.
Is female risk-taking overlooked?
Quick, think of some risky activities. Playing the tables in Vegas? Riding a motorcycle without a helmet? Hunting for big game? Climbing Mount Everest? Running for president or gunning for a top position in a big company? These traditional measures of risk-taking are also heavily associated with masculinity, the researchers believe.
"When people imagine a risk-taker, they might picture someone risking their fortune at a high-stakes poker game, an ambitious CEO, or someone crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope—but chances are that the person they picture will be a man," said Thekla Morgenroth, post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter, and lead author of the paper said in a news release about the team's research. "In other words, in our culture, risk is strongly associated with masculinity—and our research shows that this also biases how scientists measure risk."
So by measuring against these stereotypically masculine activities, it's possible past risk researchers have mistakenly found that men are more prone to task risks than women, reinforcing cultural assumptions about risk. Morgenroth's team devised new questions about risk that neutralized and reversed that traditionally masculine bias.
When asked about gender-neutral or female-associated risks—like horseback riding, making big purchases online, cooking a technically complicated meal or taking a cheerleading class—women are just as likely, and even more likely, to be risk-takers.
Men were only more willing to take risks when the risky activities were traditionally masculine.
The point is, even if you're not about to jump out of a plane, there's more than one way to be a risk-taker.
"Traditional measures of risk-taking tend to overlook the fact that women take many risks all the time—they go horseback riding, they challenge sexism, they are more likely to donate their kidneys to family members," Morgenroth said. "In our research, we show that when you ask men and women how likely they are to take more feminine risks, the gender difference in risk-taking suddenly disappears or even reverses with women reporting slightly higher levels of risk-taking. We've been overlooking female risk-taking because our measures have been biased."
Why it matters
Women's perceived risk aversion has been used against them in workplace situations, the researchers believe, putting women at a disadvantage for important roles in organizations and equal salaries. For example, perceived biological differences between male and female employees was one of the talking points former Google engineer James Damore put forth in his viral anti-diversity manifesto. In his eyes, there are are things about women that simply render them unsuited for careers in tech.
This new way of looking at risk and measuring risk-taking could go toward debunking potentially harmful myths, University of Exeter professor and study co-author Michelle Ryan said.
"Understanding the nature of gender differences in risk-taking is particularly important as the assumption that women are risk averse is often used to justify ongoing gender inequality—such as the gender pay gap and women's under-representation in politics and leadership," she said.