Do Women Take as Many Risks as Men?

One week before delivering the final manuscript of my book, Taking Smart Risks, I came to a disturbing realization. There were 38 stories in the book, but only seven were about women.

Jill Logan, an employee helping me get the final product out the door, noticed it. I was stunned. My first reaction was That can't be true. I walked over to the whiteboard listing each story and counted them myself: Seven out of 38. She was right.

I looked at Jill and said, "How in the world did this happen!?" I had run that group of stories through so many filters to ensure I was capturing everything in a balanced way — age, size of company, industry, geography. How did I not keep a closer eye on gender? Only 18% of the stories involved women. I felt embarrassed. I thought to myself, "I, of all men, should have caught that." More than half of my leadership consulting clients over the last decade have been women. Furthermore, twenty years ago, my mother, a PhD in Organizational Psychology, had written a 454-page dissertation titled On Being a Bright and Ambitious Woman — which was, in essence, about women taking risks in business.

After berating myself for 30 minutes, I got genuinely curious. I wanted to answer the rhetorical question I had asked Jill. Really, how in the world did this happen?

I started by looking at the original network of people I had contacted to source the stories: seventy-eight successful, intelligent, forward-thinking men and women. I thought that perhaps I had introduced the bias from the start by contacting more men than women. Nope. The network actually contained more women than men, forty to thirty-eight.

Then I did my best to recreate the universe of potential stories that the network generated. I counted 129. I quickly realized that this is where the imbalance started. Only 47 of the stories (36%) contained women. When I had asked my initial question — "Who, from your personal networks, would you consider smart, successful risk takers?" — two-to-one, more men than women had come to mind, even though the responding group was more female than male.

That was an interesting data point worth further consideration. But it still didn't account for the final outcome — only 18% of my stories involved women, not 36% or even close to that. I was the perpetrator of this further reduction. From the pool of 129 stories I had collected, eighty-two were about men and I chose thirty-one of them for inclusion — that's 38% of the male stories. Forty-seven were about women, and I chose seven of them for inclusion — that's only 15% of the female stories.

I was left with two questions. Why did my network share more male than female stories? And then, with both in hand, why did I still choose a larger percentage of the male stories? I've thought about and discussed these questions with both men and women in the six months since Jill brought the discrepancy to my attention. I've also pulled some research on the topic. Here are a few things I've learned so far.

Men are more inclined to take risks than women. This finding has been replicated in a variety of studies over the years with researchers pointing to economic and evolutionary reasons. A recent study by Mara Mather and
Nichole R. Lighthall found that gender differences are amplified even further under stress. Male risk-taking tends to increase under stress, while female risk taking tends to decrease under stress. One reason is there are gender differences in brain activity involved in computing risk and preparing for action. This seems to be an important finding given the stressful nature of our work lives today. Are men potentially too reckless and women too cautious in these scenarios? What are the implications? One implication might be that, under stress, men and women working together would make smarter risk-taking decisions than either gender alone. This is a topic ripe for further exploration.

People tend to perceive that women are more risk averse than men. Stronger, taller, and more attractive people are perceived to be more risk tolerant, according to research by Sheryl Ball, Catherine C Eckel, and Maria Heracleous. Women are perceived to be more risk averse. That means that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting support for risk-taking. This perception bias further compounds the inclination differences mentioned above. I fear this is one of the factors that snagged me as I chose stories for inclusion. I perceived a larger percentage of male stories were simply more compelling than female stories. But on second look, were they really? Did I count women out too early? Maybe I just found it easier to relate to the male stories. Maybe women conceive of risk-taking differently and I just didn't look through the right lens. Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, makes some compelling points along these lines in a 2011 talk. This is another topic ripe for further study.

Risk-taking role models of both genders are important in an increasingly complex world. When facing a risky decision, leaders must weigh a lot of factors. Two of the biggest are, first, the likelihood that the risk in question will help hit strategic objectives and, second, the effect the risk will have on people involved. Accounting for one without the other is a recipe for disaster. In my consulting practice I've noticed a tendency for men to put a stronger emphasis on the former and women on the latter. Recent research by Seda Ertac and Mehmet Y. Gurdal supports this observation. To me, this tendency is further evidence that the most successful risk taking is a collaborative effort between men and women (and likely across other differences as well).

To go back to my opening question, "Do women take as many risks as men?" I think they do. The trouble is that historically risk-taking has been framed so narrowly that it skews our perceptions. For example, the majority of studies that point to men having a greater inclination for risk-taking define risk in physical and financial terms. They don't point to risks like standing up for what's right in the face of opposition, or taking the ethical path when there's pressure to stray — important risks that I've found women are particularly strong at taking. If these sorts of risks were fully accounted for in our business culture, would it balance the gender perception? I think it would.

I believe that the stories I chose for my book present a thoughtful, balanced approach to risk taking. Many women who have read the book have commented that the examples resonate regardless of gender. At the same time, I realize I missed an opportunity. The only way we'll redefine professional risk-taking more broadly is to identify and tell more stories of successful female risk takers, balancing the male stories that currently dominate.

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