In a recent study, Freakonomics guest writers John List and Uri Gneezy set out to prove what they posit is a big reason women are still paid just seventy-seven cents, on average, for every dollar a man makes. “Personally,” they write, “we think that much of it boils down to this: men and women have different preferences for competitiveness, and at least part of the wage gaps we see are a result of men and women responding differently to incentives.” To demonstrate this, they posted ads for a job opening on Craigslist, and when people applied, they told half of them that the job would be paid a flat rate of $15 an hour but the other half that they would get $12 an hour and then have to compete with a coworker for a $6 per hour bonus. The authors write that “both ads would pay workers and average of $15 per hour,” neglecting to explain what would happen if a worker were to lose out to the other every time and miss that bonus.
The two report that women were 70 percent less likely to want the job with a “competitive pay scale”—and conclude that women just don’t have the same desire to chase reward. But what they would call “competitive” I would call risky: one job offered steady pay, while the other varied depending on a variety of factors. One of those factors may have been how the boss viewed female workers. Women have every reason to be averse to a situation that might pit them against a man, knowing that there is still lots of implicit bias against them. Employees would have been putting part of their paychecks at risk, and women—logically—declined to take that risk.
Setting aside the myriad other causes of the gender wage gap that List and Gneezy don’t address, it’s worth asking: Why don’t women take risks? One half of the answer is that they are socialized not to. It starts very early. Girls are rewarded with higher grades at school for their better ability to follow the rules and not act out. Other research has shown that girls learn to give up on a challenge that stumps them while boys are taught to redouble their efforts and keep trying. Boys, who have a more difficult time paying attention and sitting still, are told that they just need to put in more effort to get it right. Girls, who are better at following instructions, are told they are smart, good, clever—innate, unchangeable traits that don’t improve with trying harder. Girls are given less room to make mistakes.
Room to try things over and over, for forgiveness for behaving badly, has ripples throughout boys’ lives. A study of those who start their own high-risk, high-reward businesses found that they were more likely to engage in “aggressive, illicit, and risky activities” as young people than others. Entrepreneurs are twice as likely as salaried workers to say they took something by force when they were young and 44 percent more likely to have been stopped by the police. They also end up earning about 30 to 50 percent more than others.
Women, on the other hand, aren’t rewarded for being risk-takers in the workplace. The other half of the answer to the question of why women might not go in for risk is that they don’t see the same returns. A study by the research organization Catalyst found that female MBA graduates employed many of the aggressive and ambitious strategies to get ahead in their careers as men did, including asking for higher pay while getting hired and a higher position later, both risky demands. But they still didn’t reap the rewards. “[W]hen women used the same career advancement strategies as men, they advanced less,” it noted.
It seems men get paid more for taking bigger risks. But companies may want to rethink rewarding this behavior. Women’s ingrained nature to be risk-averse is proving to make them a boon for the bottom line.
A new study finds that the presence of women on corporate boards leads companies to pay less for buying other businesses and make fewer acquisitions overall, something that may create more value. Each woman added to a board reduces the final price for acquiring a company by 15.4 percent and lowers the chance that it will make a buy in the first place by 7.6 percent. The researchers posit that this shows that women have less appetite for risky deals and are focused instead on higher returns on investment. In another study that took place over seven years, female investors were found to outperform male ones thanks to the fact that they were more level-headed and avoided making a lot of trades, which lowers returns. They are also more loss-averse and let go of losing stocks more quickly. These line up with a host of other studies that show that having more women on corporate boards improves firm performance.
If women were rewarded for going off-script as children, it’s highly possible that they would have similar appetites for risk as men do. But they are discouraged from disobeying the rules and given less room to screw up than boys, and when they take risks later in life they don’t get the glory. Blaming the gender wage gap on this difference blames girls for the way society has shaped them.
But we also may not want to turn women into daredevils. Instead, we could reward an eye for the long term and a more even head the same way that we currently reward impulsive and risky behavior in men. Stealing as a teen may correlate well with starting a new business later in life, but playing it safe can get you a better return.