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Women Business Leaders are Risk-takers: Survey Debunks Gender Myth

Simmons School of Management Advises Women to Capture Credit for Risk-taking

BOSTON (May 7, 2009) — Contrary to popular belief, women business leaders don't shy from taking risks, but partake in opportunities considered to be "high-risk" on a regular basis, according to a survey by the Simmons School of Management in Boston.

Existing empirical research on gender and risk suggest women are risk-averse, particularly assessments that measure risk through financial resource allocation, and health and safety precautions. But a survey of more than 650 women managers polled during the 2008 Simmons School of Management national leadership conference in Boston revealed that businesswomen are highly likely to take risks related to business or professional opportunities.

The survey analysis showed that by expanding the definition of risk-taking from hypothetical financial allocation scenarios to include business and professional opportunities taken, women do take risks — a lot of them. The School of Management and HP, a lead conference sponsor, conducted the survey.

(For the complete article, "Risky Business: Busting the Myth of Women as Risk Averse," go to www.simmons.edu/som/cgo)

"When you actually unpack the research, the finding that women avoid risk is based on very specific contexts and a limited concept of risk-taking actions," said article co-author Sylvia Maxfield, a professor at the School of Management. "By including contexts in which significant investments of time and money are placed in projects which require learning-by-doing, and where the likelihood of success is very hard to predict, we found women engaged in a lot of risk-taking actions."

When women were asked about business/professional opportunities taken, such as new jobs, assignments, programs, or change initiatives, all of which involved the investment of personal capital and carried unknown outcomes for both the business and for person/career development:

- 80% reported pursuing a major change initiative "sometimes" or "often"
- 79% reported pursuing a new program
- 77% reported pursuing a new job
- 56% reported pursuing a major business development opportunity

The survey findings show that although businesswomen do indeed embrace risk, they are largely viewed by the business world and mass media as being risk-averse. Survey authors attribute this "invisible" risk-taking to a number of factors, including societal expectations that do not view women as risk-takers and do not recognize when women take risks; that women do not seek more visible measures of successful risk-taking found in most organization, such as a promotion to high-status position; and a lack of self-promotion by women about the risk they've taken and their achieved success.

The survey authors recommend that women take steps to make their risk-taking more visible in order to enhance their career potential. This requires capturing credit for their efforts in ways that signal their success to those around them. 

- Using language of risk: Name the risk and articulate the cost-benefit calculation.
- Promoting accomplishments: Communicate to senior decision-makers about risk-taking and efforts, including uncertainty surrounding some decisions, challenges overcome, and accomplishments achieved.
- Aligning with other risk-takers in organization: This helps to enhance one's reputation as risk-taker but puts it in proximity of risk-taking activities.

In exploring the factors that influenced their decision to take risks, the women surveyed indicated that several motivations are common among men and women. The desire for "the power to make an impact," for example, made women take opportunistic risks. "Women embraced risk believing this would help them gain influence, higher compensation, and career rewards," Maxfield said.

The study authors were Maxfield, Vipin Gupta, Mary Shapiro, and Susan Hass, all on the faculty of the Simmons School of Management.

The Simmons School of Management the nation's only business school designed for principled leadership for women, is the leading authority on women, leadership and management. The Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO), the school's research arm, works to reform organizational effectiveness by strengthening gender equity in the workplace. HP (www.hp.com) is a technology solutions provider to consumers, businesses, and institutions globally.

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