Let’s face it, ladies: when it comes to risk-taking, everyone assumes we’re flat-out allergic. We clip coupons; men trade derivatives. It was even suggested, without a hint of irony, that increasing our ranks in the banking sector could preempt further financial crises.
But the fallout commonly associated with risk avoidance is severe. Women are disappearing from America’s corner offices yet again after a five-year plateau, even though we account for 50 percent of the workforce. We opt out too early. We’re more financially risk-averse than our male counterparts (and comparatively less wealthy, perhaps as a result).
In 2011, we still don’t sit at the table–even when the chair’s empty. If you put a lot of stock in evolutionary psychology, our risk aversion is our evolutionary due–after all, we’re simply not the risk-taking gender. In other words, we can’t help it.
Or can we?
What Makes a Risk Risky?
A complex psychological process is cued whenever we assess a potential risk. A kind of cost-benefit analysis occurs, comparing outcomes against likely costs; and this is something women, across multiple studies, approach more conservatively than men. When we fear an outcome will be negative–financially, professionally, emotionally–we are more likely to avoid it.
But the process of evaluating risk is highly subjective.
And like all human acts, assuming risk is, in part, a matter of will. Whatever the invisible power balance is between testosterone, evolution and upbringing, the fact is that a little cognitive trickery can encourage (or discourage) any of us from assuming risk in the face of palpable fear.
Many of the larger risks I’ve taken in my life were the “easiest,” because the variables were too far-ranging for me to analyze, whereas a small risk with a potentially high cost (humiliation, financial loss) could seem too challenging to conquer.
It was easy to quit my job and move to Mexico, but difficult to demand fair compensation at the office. Why?
Instead of trying to answer this question alone, I solicited tales of risk from women I know (and women I don’t know). I asked them to share what they feared would happen, versus what actually did happen. I gave little stage direction, because a key point of contention is the very definition of risk.
In every case, the fears bore little or no relation to the outcomes.
The theme of fear of isolation, professional failure, and being left “option-less” was common. Melissa Breau, the founder of Moxy Magazine (@MelissaBreau on Twitter), cited the risk of starting this very magazine, a labor of love that involved many months of preparation.
“I feared I’d end up hung out to dry–everyone that said they’d love to help would run the other way once it came time to do work and the whole project would flop,” she wrote. Instead, you see the reality before you–“We’re slowly but steadily building a readership and regular contributors. Several women have stepped forward to dedicate several hours a week to helping make the site a reality, and a number of people have given large chunks of time to help out in major ways.”
Blogger and management-consultant-by-day Nikita T. Mitchell (@NikitaTMitchell), remembered the grueling process of finding the perfect business internship after her junior year of college. She flew to London for the interview, but was sure she’d fail.
“I feared that I wouldn’t get the job because all of the other applicants were from Europe and other awesome places, often speaking two or three languages, and had taken far more intense finance courses than me…That the HR reps who kept discouraging me from applying were only allowing me to interview because they felt like they had to…That I would not be able to secure another internship if I didn’t get an offer. And of course, that heaven forbid I not get an internship at all that summer because I’d never be able to land a good job after college and I’d be dependent on my parents to help me get on my feet!”
Instead, she got the internship–the offer was waiting for her when her flight home from London touched down–but after finishing the internship, didn’t get an offer to return for full time employment. “I thought my life was over…I was back to square one,” she remembers. “I ended up taking a full time offer in another industry and Lehman Brothers, where I had interned for those two summers, ceased to exist within months of my graduation.
“Life always works itself out.”