Despite recent gains, it is a clear and well accepted fact that females are still underrepresented in the upper echelons of many industries. Even in female dominated sectors such as education, males are overrepresented in senior leadership positions. This could well be a result of differences between the genders with regards to risk aversion and competition. Are these differences in behaviour hardwired or learned and indeed, can they be changed?
A majority of studies investigating gender differences in risk thresholds find that women are generally less willing to take risks than men. However, such studies typically have looked only at a single point in time. Only recently have we begun to explore why women and men might have different risk preferences. As is the case with many behaviours, those differences may be due to either nurture, nature, or some combination of the two. Boys tend to be pushed to take risks when participating in contact sports while traditionally girls are often encouraged to remain more cautious. Thus, riskier choices made by males could be due to the nurturing received from parents or peers. Likewise, the disinclination of women to take risks could be the result of parental or peer pressure not to do so.
To test if single-sex classes can modify students' risk-taking behaviour, a controlled experiment using all incoming first year economics and business students at a British university was conducted. Prior to the start of the academic year, students were randomly assigned to one of three classes – all female, all male, or mixed gender. The subjects were twice asked to make choices over risk-based outcomes eight weeks apart.
It was found that, overall, women were significantly less likely to make risky choices than men on both occasions. However, after eight weeks in the single-sex class environment women were significantly more likely to choose the risky options than their counterparts in the coeducational group. No such result was found for men in the single-sex groups. In other words, after eight weeks, the women in the single-sex classes were no more risk averse than men.
The findings suggest, first, that a part of the observed gender difference in behaviour under uncertainty found in previous studies might actually reflect social learning rather than inherent gender traits. Of course, this is not to say that inherent gender traits do not exist. Rather it suggests that they can be modified across time by the environment in which a woman is placed.
More importantly, the findings are also relevant to girls only schooling such as at Girls Grammar. I guess the big takeaway for me is that girls really benefit from the absence of boys in educational settings. By being more willing to take on calculated risk, we have a better chance of developing the core behaviours required of senior leaders and as a result, eliminating the gender imbalance at the top.
This article is a summary of the work of Alison Booth, Patrick Nolen, Lina Cardona Sosa published 20 February 2012
Dr John Fry
Deputy Principal - Studies