Women leaders less likely to take risks

Results from a three-year study suggest risk-taking behaviour could be the main differentiator between the male and female personality.

These are the key findings from a study presented today by chartered psychologists Geoff Trickey and So Yi Yeung, from Psychological Consultancy Limited, to the annual conference of the Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology.

The research offers a likely explanation for the differences in female and male leadership styles and provides evidence to corroborate anecdotal assertions that the typical female leadership style is more effective than male in the current, austere, post-crisis, economic conditions.

Over 20 occupational sectors across four continents were surveyed, involving almost 2000 individual assessments with people from a wide range of professions.

The magnitude of the difference in risk taking between men and women was unexpected. Females were more than twice as likely to be Wary and almost twice as likely to be Prudent whilst males were more than twice as likely to be Adventurous and almost twice as likely to be Carefree. From the scale of these findings the researchers conclude that risk taking must be a distinctive feature of gender.

Trickey observed: “The implication of our gender difference findings is that male/female Risk Type differences are genetic; having achieved a balance shaped by evolution which would have been critical to survival of our species. It’s easy to see how the balance between prudent, cautious long term decision-making of females would have married up very effectively with the impulsive, carefree, adventurous approach of males.”

Trickey commented on the need for a similar gender balance within organisations, boardrooms, government committees and working parties: “Risk Taking is necessary and desirable, but we need to reinstate the balance that ensured the survival of our ancestors. Whether this is best done by gender selection manipulation is arguable, but the aim should be to achieve a balance of Risk Types.”

The research was triggered by FSA requirements to assess risk tolerance in investors.  The remit for the programme of work was to create an assessment tool to measure individual propensity for risk.

Up until now management of risk has largely been dominated by the health and safety agenda. In its shadows, risk within the leadership/decision making arena has been dogged by an inability to disentangle deep-rooted personality factors (how much risk an individual is able to take, how much uncertainty they can cope with and how they react when things go wrong) from the more transient, situational influences.