Risky situations increase anxiety for women, but not for men, according to a new study.
This anxiety leads to women performing worse under risky circumstances, according to the study, which was presented at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.
“On the surface, risky situations may not appear to be particularly disadvantageous to women, but these findings suggest otherwise,” said study author Susan R. Fisk, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford University.
She defines a risky situation as any setting with an uncertain outcome in which there can be both positive or negative results, depending on some combination of skill and chance.
People often think of an extreme physical or financial risk when they think about a “risky situation,” she noted. “In reality, however, people encounter risky situations all of the time,” she said.
Some risky situations we deal with on a daily basis include raising your hand to offer an idea at a meeting full of judgmental co-workers, giving your boss feedback on his or her performance, or volunteering for a difficult workplace assignment.
The First Study
For her study, Fisk used data from three sources: Two experiments and test scores from an engineering course at a private university on the West Coast.
The goal of the first experiment, which was conducted online using adults ranging in age from 18 to 81, was to determine whether risky workplace situations increased the anxiety of women and men, she explained.
“Participants were given one of four scenarios presented in either a risky or non-risky way. For instance, participants who were asked to imagine a work-related group meeting were either told that the other members of the group understood that bad ideas were part of the brain-storming process (the non-risky framing) or that the other group members were extremely judgmental of bad ideas (the risky framing),” she said.
After reading their scenario, participants were asked to think and write about the reasoning they would use to decide what to do in the situation they received, how they believed they would act in the situation, and how the situation would make them feel. After participants finished writing about their scenario, they took an anxiety test.
Fisk found that when scenarios were framed in a risky way, women were more anxious than when the scenarios were framed in a non-risky way. Women who received risky scenarios scored 13.6 percent higher on the anxiety test than those who received non-risky scenarios, she reports.
The framing of the scenarios did not have a statistically significant effect on men’s anxiety, she noted.
She argues that women’s increased anxiety in risky situations may be due to the fact that these situations are riskier for women than men.
“Prior research suggests that even if a woman has the same objective performance as a man, others are likely to judge her performance as worse and attribute her failure to incompetence instead of poor luck,” Fisk explained.
“Furthermore, this body of research suggests that even absent the judgment of others, failure in a risky situation is more costly to women as it may reinforce or create self-doubt about their own competence.”
Increased anxiety in risky settings is a problem for women because it may depress their ability to achieve, according to the researcher.
The Second Study
She found that women perform worse on tasks than men in risky situations, even when they have the same ability in a non-risky setting. Her data on performance came from two sources: An in-person experiment that required participants to answer verbal SAT questions and test grades from a large undergraduate engineering course.
In the experiment that used the SAT questions, participants were given 20 questions to complete. They were told that they could bet money on each answer, making the situation risky. If they placed no bets, they were guaranteed to walk away with $15, but, if they placed bets, they could earn as little as $5 or as much as $55, depending on how much they bet and the accuracy of their answers.
“Women correctly answered about 11 percent fewer questions than men in this risky situation involving betting, even after their general verbal SAT ability was taken into account,” Fisk said.
A similar effect was seen when using data about grades from an undergraduate engineering course. The midterm exam used an unusual grading methodology that required students to state their confidence in their answers. This created a risky setting because higher confidence in correct answers generated higher scores, while higher confidence in incorrect answers produced lower scores, Fisk explained.
On this test, a student could receive any score between -33 percent and 100 percent, and were guaranteed to earn 50 percent if they stated that they had no confidence in any of their answers. However, the final exam occurred in a setting that was much less risky, as it was impossible for students to lose points.
Women’s grades on the midterm were about four percentage points (about half a letter grade) lower than men’s grades, even after their ability in the engineering course was taken into account. On the final exam, there were no differences in the grades of women and men, she noted.
“My findings have troublesome implications for women’s ability to achieve equality in the workplace,” Fisk said. “People frequently encounter high-risk, high-reward situations in workplaces, and if women avoid these situations or perform more poorly in them because they are more anxious, they will reap fewer rewards than otherwise similar men.”
She added she believes that this anxiety and poorer performance in risky situations “may be an unexplored contributor to the dearth of women in positions of leadership and power, as success in these kinds of circumstances is often a precursor to career advancement and promotion.”
Fisk suggests employers work to eliminate situations that are needlessly high-stakes.
“We live in an economy that demands innovation and diversity of thought,” she said. “If encouraging businesses to decrease the prevalence of risky environments allows employers and companies to get better ideas and enhanced performance from their employees, it is a win-win solution for both women and employers.”