Macho pursuits dominate assessments of risky behavior, reinforcing gender stereotypes

October 05, 2017

Women can be just as risky as men - or even riskier - when the conventional macho measures of daring - such as betting vast sums on a football game - are replaced by less stereotypical criteria, according to new research led by the University of Exeter.

Traditional barometers of high risk behaviour - such as betting a day's wages at a high stakes poker game or riding a motorcycle without a helmet - are often stereotypically masculine. A team of psychologists - Dr Thekla Morgenroth and Professor Michelle Ryan from the University of Exeter and Professor Cordelia Fine and Anna Genat from the University of Melbourne -devised a new measure of risk-taking including activities that women might more typically pursue such as going horseback riding or making risky purchases online.

They found that research and surveys about risk behaviour has reinforced cultural assumptions about who takes risks. Assessments of heroism, daring or audacity often focus on traditionally masculine behaviour such as gambling or skydiving. When this bias is addressed, women and men rate themselves as equally likely to take risks.

The findings of the study, published in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, raises fresh questions about whether risk-taking is overwhelmingly a masculine personality trait, and whether women are as risk averse as previously suggested.

Dr Thekla Morgenroth, post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, and lead author of the paper said: "When people imagine a risk-taker, they might picture someone risking their fortune at a high-stakes poker game, an ambitious CEO, or someone crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope - but chances are that the person they picture will be a man. In other words, in our culture, risk is strongly associated with masculinity - and our research shows that this also biases how scientists measure risk."

Dr Morgenroth went on to say:

"Traditional measures of risk-taking tend to overlook the fact that women take many risks all the time - they go horseback riding, they challenge sexism, they are more likely to donate their kidneys to family members. In our research, we show that when you ask men and women how likely they are to take more feminine risks, the gender difference in risk-taking suddenly disappears or even reverses with women reporting slightly higher levels of risk-taking. We've been overlooking female risk-taking because our measures have been biased."

Co-author Professor Cordelia Fine, whose book Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds, was this week awarded the prestigious Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017, added:

"Even when we matched the level of physical or financial risk, we found that the choice of risky activity - masculine, or more neutral or feminine - makes a difference to the conclusion about which gender is more risk-taking."

The academics surveyed a total of 238 people in two studies using traditional measures of risk and new questions which included more activities which were rated as feminine by a group of 99 men and women.

When stereotypically masculine criteria such as gambling at a casino or going white-water rafting were used, men rated themselves as more likely to engage in risk-taking. However, when new behaviour was included, such as taking a cheerleading class or cooking an impressive but difficult meal for a dinner party, women rated themselves as equally or more likely to take risks.

Co-author Prof Michelle Ryan noted: "Understanding the nature of gender differences in risk taking is particularly important as the assumption that women are risk averse is often used to justify ongoing gender inequality - such as the gender pay gap and women's under-representation in politics and leadership"
-end-


University of Exeter

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