Women Aren't Risk-Averse—Society Teaches Them to Be That Way, Study Says

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Researchers investigated risk aversion in children of different genders. Getty Images

Scientists exploring the notion that men are bigger risk-takers than women have concluded that such behavior is learned, not inherited.

To learn why women appear to be more risk-averse than men, researchers studied more than 500 children from two ethnic groups raised in an unusual setup in Yunnan Province, China.

While children from the Han community grow up in traditionally patriarchal and patrilineal communities, the Mosuo are the country's only matrilineal ethnic minority group and are raised with opposing gender norms to the Han.

As such, the grandmother is generally the head of a Mosuo household, with women making decisions and given higher or equal status to men. Children are raised in a home with their mother and her brothers and sisters, and their maternal granduncle, but fathers are "often excluded," according to the authors of the study published in the journal PNAS.

When groups mingle in school, children are exposed to one another's cultural differences. At first, the students from each community enacted opposing gender norms. In fact, Mosuo girls were found to be greater daredevils than Mosuo boys. But the longer Mosuo children spent with Han students, the more Mosuo girls feared taking chances, falling behind the boys in the same group by age 11.

The study, carried out in Yongning Township, involved four elementary schools running from grade one to five, with 10 to 30 students in each class per grade. Mosuo students made up 40 percent of the group. A total of 185 students were studied in 2015, and 167 in 2016.

The participants took part in a lottery to test their propensity to take risks. Overall, Han girls were found to be more risk-averse than their male counterparts, but Mosuo girls were less risk-averse than the boys. In first grade, Mosuo girls were more daring than the boys, but were overtaken as they aged. However, a comparable pattern was not seen in Han girls, as they were more risk-averse than Han boys at all stages.

This "suggests that becoming more risk-averse as one ages is not due to genetics," the authors wrote.

Corresponding study author Elaine M. Liu, associate professor at the University of Houston's Department of Economics, told Newsweek: "Many studies find that women are more risk-averse than men. This study tells us that the gender gap in attitudes toward risk among children is influenced by culture and social environment. It may not be an inherited trait."

She elaborated, "While at the beginning, children's risk-taking behaviors follow the norm of their parents, very soon after entering school, their behaviors become more similar to their classmates'. Social environment is important in affecting children's risk attitudes."

Exploring risk aversion could provide clues as to why men and women sometimes opt for different careers, and why women suffer from a gender pay gap, the authors wrote.

Lui acknowledged the study was limited because the researchers didn't know if the behaviorial changes were permanent, or whether children would revert to their parents' norms once they had finished school and moved back to their respective villages. Also, the study didn't assess other behaviors associated with gender norms, such as competitiveness.

Cordelia Fine, a professor at the University of Melbourne and the author of Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, was not involved in the study. She told Newsweek, "Given the sample sizes, once you start to break groups down by age/grade and by peer conditions, these findings should certainly be regarded as provisional until replicated.

"A further limitation of the study is that it's not clear what lottery tasks like this are really measuring," Fine continued. "The common assumption is that the tasks tap into some kind of stable property of risk-aversion in a person, but recent research finds that different tasks that are all supposed to be eliciting risk preferences yield different results [within individuals], raising a question mark about what they are actually measuring."