Women less willing to risk?

November 4, 2005

Via Fast Company, an article about a study done that looks at men and women when faced with competitive or collaborative environments.  The results suggest that women are less likely to choose a competitive environment, even when they know they can win.  The study was set up to provide a less lucrative but more certain task, and a highly lucrative but more risky task.  Women consistently underrated their performance, were less likely to choose the competitive environment, and also were more likely to shy away from feedback scenarios.  The study didn’t follow up with the participants to ask why they made the choices they did.

I’ve heard several times that women underrate their abilities because they’ve been taught not to be boastful about what they can do, and I don’t disagree with that, although I don’t think it’s the whole story of that particular trait.  I think it very likely that what men might perceive as simple facts (i.e. "I can do this" or "He is this capable") women perceive as boastful – and if you add to that the desire for positive feedback, it’s a foolproof way to be built up in your abilities without risking anything: you should claim to do less than you are capable of, and then everyone will be surprised by your amazing abilities and your humility.

This doesn’t explain the trend of constantly needing that positive reinforcement, but it does provide a window into the idea of risk (for women.)  Based on the study, women are much more likely to go for a "sure thing" than risk for a scenario that results in a higher yield albeit with the understanding that only the winners actually reap rewards.  In that scenario, I’d say the women were being a little more reality-based.  The men in the study overrated their abilities highly, with nearly 75% saying that they would be the highest scorer in their study groups.  If I had been in the study, I might have gone for the higher risk option solely for the fun of it, but in real life, I’m much more likely to go for the lower risk guaranteed yield options, as I’m looking at the knowledge that not everybody wins, and if I want a return, I’m more likely to receive one even if I know that I have the ability to compete at a higher-risk higher-yield level.

I could deconstruct the finding of the study quite a bit further, but I’ll leave it at that for now.  It’s just interesting to speculate on why we do these things…


3 Responses to “Women less willing to risk?”

  1. Jake Savage Says:

    I wonder if anyone has ever analyzed men’s and women’s choices when presented with the “Daily Double” on Jeopardy! or similar situations in other game shows. Would one gender tend to be more risk averse than the other?

  2. Jayne Says:

    What a good idea! I’ll have to see if I can find any info on that – it’s a built-in research pool. 🙂 Although it’s not perfect in terms of offering lower-risk yields, because if you don’t win, you don’t get any money. I suppose, though, that you also have to weigh high wagers against the possibility of a lower wager and everyone getting it wrong, which would net you less than if you wagered more…hmmm. Possibilities. You’ve stirred my brain up a bit. To the Google-cave, Robin!

  3. TF6S Says:

    I’d avoid Jeopordy and try something like The Newlywed Game. That would be some useful data!

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