Risk-Taking and Women: Busting the Myth

On our trips at AdventureWomen we like to encourage our guests to stretch – mentally, physically, even sometimes spiritually in whatever ways they want to. To challenge yourself as you try a new activity and discover new capabilities you never thought you had, as you step outside your comfort zone.

A natural question arises…

Are women true risk takers? Or is it true that risk taking is more prevalent among men?

Masculinity and Testosterone

The myth that men are more natural risk takers may have evolved out of the cultural “truism” that risk taking is essentially a masculine trait. Evolutionary theories abound that men, engaged in competitive behaviors such as fighting with others for food or territory, were rewarded with more mates and domination thus encouraging men to pursue more risk-taking. The association of the hormone testosterone with higher levels of risk-taking behavior along with the higher prevalence of this hormone among males, further entrenched this stereotypical view.

Definitions of Risk – What Gets Studied

Definitions of “risk taking” have also played a part here. “Risks” were often measured in terms of economic/financial risk taking or physical risk taking. Both are more associated with men. Ethical or socially-defined risks such as standing up for what’s right in the face of opposition, or taking the ethical path when there’s pressure not to (more typically seen in women) were typically not the subject of most risk-taking research comparing gender proclivities.

Risk-Taking Considerations: Mars vs Venus

Additionally, Seda Ertac and Mehmet Y. Gurdal show that there are two key considerations made by leaders when facing a risky decision. The first is the likelihood that taking the risk will help meet strategic objectives and, second, the positive or negative effects risk taking will have on the people involved. It turns out men tend to put a stronger emphasis on the first consideration while women tend to focus on the second.

Biology and the Brain

A recent study by Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall found that in risk taking, behavioral differences between genders are magnified when we are under stress. Male risk-taking tends to increase under stress, while female risk taking tends to decrease under stress due to differing patterns of brain activity involved in computing risk and preparing for action between the sexes.

Perceptions Influence Reality

Finally, it appears that 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 and thus are rewarded less for potential risk-taking (e.g. funding for investment, innovation, and creativity). Unfortunately, this may be a vicious self-fulfilling cycle where women, already disadvantaged relative to men in the workforce, think twice before risking what little they have for the chance of an unlikely reward.

So perhaps the answer to are women truly as risk taking as men is “yes”, it just depends on what types of risks you are measuring. Our experience at AdventureWomen shows us that women take all sorts of risks, on our trips – and off. Small ones, large ones. Simple ones. Complex ones. In many areas of their lives and lifestyles – personally and professionally. We love their willingness to share these stories of adventure with each other and support each other in these decisions. It is through our community of camaraderie that we all move forward as individuals.