Sex, drugs and roller blading


Cordelia Fine Dezember 2017

Risk-taking is a strongly gendered concept. At a recent business event, a consultant shared with me his BHAG (for readers blessedly ignorant of corporate jargon, that’s a “big, hairy audacious goal”). When someone impresses us with their courage, we never admiringly comment that they’ve “got some ovaries.” And a willingness to take risks is a prescribed trait for men in US society.

Does this cultural association between risk-taking and masculinity influence scientific research? As feminist philosophers such as Helen Longino and Sandra Harding have pointed out, scientists come to their work with background beliefs, norms, preferences, assumptions and perspectives. These shape the decisions that have to be made throughout the scientific process, including decisions as fundamental as what questions you ask, what questions you don’t ask, and how you measure a particular concept.

And when it comes to risk-taking, Julie Nelson, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has observed that female-typical forms of risk-taking tend to get overlooked. For example, I’ve never seen a risk-taking survey that includes items such as: How likely is it that you would pursue a profession in which there is a considerable risk of sexual harassment by a powerful man who will destroy your career if you complain?  

Nelson’s insight inspired my colleagues and me (the study was led by Thekla Morgenroth at Exeter University, with Michelle Ryan and Anna Genat) to investigate whether a think risk-think male association might lead to a form of confirmation bias in risk-taking surveys. In other words, because we implicitly associate risk-taking with masculinity, the surveys that get developed tend to confirm that pre-existing assumption. 

This seemed like an important question for at least two reasons. First of all, we wanted to make a helpful contribution to the scientific literature. With growing interest among researchers in linking risk-taking behaviour to hormonal (particularly testosterone) levels, it’s obviously important to know if ‘risk-taking propensity’ is, in fact, a moving target.  We already know that someone who is happy and willing to take risks on one domain (e.g., financial), isn’t in fact necessarily more likely to be a risk-taker in other domains (like recreational or social risks). But it would also be useful to know whether, even within a domain, the ‘gender’ of the risks you ask about also matter.

The second reason relates to social beliefs and attitudes. For example, we usually think of leadership positions – particularly in good times rather than those of ‘damage control’ – as requiring a willingness to take risks. Thus, a perception of women as risk-averse limits the kinds of roles to which they are seen as suited. We also sometimes see explanations of women’s lower representation at senior levels as a reflection of their risk-aversion. A scientific literature that unknowingly confirms that stereotype through research methods, without fully recognising more traditionally female forms of risk-taking, does nothing to combat that stereotype.

So, we surveyed more than two hundred people over two studies, using both traditional measures of risk (tapping financial, social and physical forms of risk), and new questions which included more activities which were overall rated as more neutral or feminine (like horse-riding, confronting someone about a sexist comment, or making risky purchases online).

We found that the kinds of items used made a difference to the pattern of differences between women and men. In the Health & Safety domain, for example, we compared responses to traditional items (like not wearing a seatbelt or riding a motorbike without a helmet) to other kinds of health and safety risks (such as donating a kidney or undergoing cosmetic surgery), and found that reports of greater likelihood to take those risks by men were no longer seen, and even edged slightly in the opposite direction, for the new risky items.

An important point about risk-taking, particularly when trying to understand why and when there might be differences between women and men, is that it’s inherently subjective. Unprotected sex is riskier for the person who could get pregnant (but would rather not), sexual harassment is riskier for the intern than the person too powerful to punish, high-risk shares are riskier for the single parent struggling to pay the rent than for the investment banker. Asking for a promotion or a pay rise is riskier for the person for whom gender norms proscribe arrogance. And this point may well help to explain why women are as well-represented as men in physically risky forms of heroism (like living kidney donation and volunteering for the Peace Corps) that are less dependent on physical prowess and strength than the kinds of heroic acts in which men dominate (such as those celebrated by the award of a Carnegie Hero Medal).

However, we did, in the third study, attempt to match the conventional and new items on for degree of risk (therefore sticking to physical and financial risks). We found that even when we did this, the choice of risky activity – more masculine, or more neutral or feminine overall – makes a difference to the conclusion about which gender is more risk-taking. And interestingly, despite the matching, the more female-typical activities were seen as less risky.

So next time you read about women who regularly receives death and rape threats for promoting feminist values, who persist in industries or organizations rife with sexual harassment, or who lose their job when they get pregnant, recognise them for the risk-takers that they are. And tell those in positions of influence or power, who don’t speak up against those who harass and discriminate, to grow some ovaries.


Morgenroth, Thekla / Fine, Cordelia / Ryan, Michelle K. / Genat, Anna E. (2017): Sex, Drugs, and Reckless Driving. Are Measures Biased Toward Identifying Risk-Taking in Men? Social Psychological and Personality Science. First published online September 19, 2017.

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05. Dezember 2017

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