Men Take Risks, Women Take Responsibility

by Julie Graber | on 30 Apr 2020

Faced with a global pandemic, it hasn't escaped anyone's attention that it has been the women world leaders who have been most effective in handling this crisis while many of their male counterparts have stumbled. What explains the difference? One factor could be who takes the risks, and who takes responsibility.


You’ve probably heard that women are more risk-averse than men. 

Countless studies over the years have documented differences in men and women’s willingness to take risk. More recent research has suggested that the differences are more situational in nature and expectations can be self-fulfilling, but bottom line, we expect women to have a lower tolerance for risk than men.

Years ago, I read a passage in a book that led me to draw my own conclusions regarding women and risk. The  book was based on interviews with women leaders , and in describing the lessons she learned from her mother, one of the profiled women leaders said she realized “that the essence of her [mother’s] leadership was her willingness to take responsibility and make decisions. She wasn’t always right, but she accepted that risk.” 

She accepted the risk. She took on the responsibility.

Christine Lagarde, while head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), rather famously noted that "if it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look a lot different today." She was talking about the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the Great Recession that followed, fueled in large part by the subprime mortgage crisis. Lagarde blames the lack of women around the table for the groupthink and reckless behavior at Lehman and other major financial institutions - a belief substantiated by IMF research that a higher percentage of women directors on the boards of banks and financial supervision agencies was associated with greater stability.

The men took risks, women take responsibility.

Recent research found that women directors reduce overconfidence in male CEOs, leading to less aggressive investment policies, better acquisition decisions, and improved financial performance, especially in industries where overconfidence is high. Other research has shown that when there are women on corporate boards there is "more effective risk mitigation and crisis management, and a better balance between risk-welcoming and risk aversion behavior." Several studies of female CFOs found they are less likely to use high-risk tax-avoidance strategies and have lower rates of financial statement irregularities (but not a lower rate of return).

Men take risks, women take responsibility.

Firms with female directors are faster to issue high-severity product recalls and initiate more low-severity product recalls in the medical products industry. Companies with more women leaders (board and executives) are more committed to corporate social responsibility and have higher levels of corporate philanthropy. And women business students were more in favor of the stakeholder model that places more weight on corporate ethical, environmental, and societal responsibilities of corporations than their men counterparts, who favor a shareholder model that focuses only on financial performance. 

Men take risks, women take responsibility.

Doug Sundheim, writing for HBR in advance of the publication of his book, Taking Smart Risks, suggested that the difference in men and women’s risk profile is that men tend to focus primarily on whether or not the risk will help achieve strategic objectives, while women place more weight on the effect the risk will have on the people involved. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of *Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing*, believe that women are not necessarily risk averse, they are just better judges of their own abilities and less likely to take a risk when they believe they are less likely to succeed. 

Men take risks, women take responsibility. 

Women are really good at taking responsibility. We learn it early. It'a large part of our socialization. And it’s a pattern that continues throughout our lives.

  • “As for women, they are socialized to be the responsible ones, the nurturers, and the caretakers,” according to Yoder in *Socialization Practices: Learning to be Ourselves in a Gender Polarized World*
  • In socialization, women incorporate to feminine attitudes, such as the importance of responsibility in social relations, while men incorporate to masculine attitudes, such as financial success and independence. (Alvesson and Billing, 1997)

Men take risks, women take responsibility.

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