New Study Finds Why Women Are Less Willing To Take Risks Than Men Are

Image by Javier Márquez / Stocksy

Perhaps you've passively observed it in your own life: Guys just tend to be more willing to take risks, whether it comes to starting a new business venture, investing in stocks, putting themselves in new and unfamiliar situations, initiating contact with romantic prospects, or just making gutsy moves during family game night. This is by no means true across the board, but many studies have actually shown men to be bigger risk-takers than women.

But if you think risk-taking is just inherently a "manly" quality, think again: A new study just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests gender differences when it comes to risk aversion are, like most gender differences, a product of socialization. In other words, the way we raise girls and boys is likely directly related to why women are less willing to take risks than men are.

To understand the nature (or nurture) of risk-taking, researchers studied two very different groups of children attending the same schools in the Yunnan province of China: Mosuo kids versus Han kids. The Mosuo culture is matrilineal, one where women tend to run households and even have higher social status than the men; the Han, on the other hand, have much more traditional, patriarchal social norms.

Researchers surveyed students from grades one through five for two consecutive years in four different elementary schools where both Mosuo and Han kids attended. They found, at the start of elementary school, Mosuo girls actually tended to be bigger risk-takers than Mosuo boys, whereas Han girls were more risk-averse than Han boys—in other words, the kids were performing according to their respective parental cultures. But as the groups of children interacted with each other over the years, the girls of both cultures began to change with age. Mosuo girls became more risk-averse, and Han girls became more risk-taking.

Although the study didn't go on to track how the girls interacted when they returned home to their respective communities, the researchers say their findings indicate the malleability of risk aversion as a personality trait.

"Environment is extremely important in shaping risk aversion," said Elaine Liu, Ph.D., an economics professor at the University of Houston and one of the study authors, in a news release. "If we can teach girls that they should be more risk-loving, perhaps that will shape their future decision-making."

That's not something to be taken lightly: Past research has shown the pressure to adhere to gender norms can curb women's economic attainment and make them less willing to strive for more. Risk-taking is particularly important for financial growth, both when it comes to taking bets on businesses that could potentially yield high rewards and when it comes to taking on big opportunities in the workplace that tend to get you noticed. Many experts believe women's risk aversion may be related to the gender pay gap and why men tend to make a lot more money than women do.

If risk aversion really is something that's culturally instilled as this study suggests, then it's all the more important that we as a society are going to extra lengths to encourage young girls to take risks. "Gender norms are slow to change, but there are social influences that could play a role in how we shape that behavior," Dr. Liu said.

What might that look like? It means encouraging young girls to explore their surroundings, ask questions, and make their own decisions without supervision whenever possible. It means not rushing to stop girls from getting dirty or hurting themselves on the playground while you let the boys run free. It means validating girls who go out of their comfort zone to speak up, show off, or try something new. Compliment and reward her for her efforts so she internalizes that it's good to be bold. Those lessons will shape her personality and might just shape her decisions years down the line.

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