he Hidden Sexism of How We Think About Risk


A THIN LINE: Risk assessment is highly dependent upon the person and the situation—most people tend to avoid what they view as high-risk situations. Philippe Petit, who walked a wire strung a quarter of a mile high between the Twin Towers, described himself as “absolutely the contrary of a daredevil.”

If men take more risks than women, it’s not because of biology.

My eldest son has long been irresistibly drawn to danger. At 6 months old he rolled across the entire expanse of the living room in order to more closely inspect the drill that his father—forgivably assuming that five yards was a safe distance to place a power tool from a baby who couldn’t yet crawl—had put on the floor. On one memorable toddler playdate, within five minutes he had located the drawer of sharp kitchen knives that his little host Harry had failed to discover in his two years of life, and began juggling with its contents. At the age of 10, I left him happily engaged in the normally hazardless activity of assembling a cake batter, only to return five minutes later to discover him about to plunge a roaring hair dryer into the mixture. As he calmly explained, he had forgotten to melt the butter before adding it to the bowl, and was therefore trying to do so retroactively.

I admit that at times like these I have occasionally wondered why it was my lot in life to have a child so blasé about risk, and whether ultimately this will prove to be a blessing or a curse. On optimistic days I imagine him reaping enormous benefits: the invention of a time machine, say, after decades of dangerous experimentation. But in darker moments, I foresee much bleaker fates featuring mortuary lockers. While proponents of what I call Testosterone Rex—the idea that women are driven by biology and evolution to be cautious, and men to be daring—obviously don’t share this fascination with my firstborn and his future, they do have a strong interest in the idea of risk taking as an inherently male trait. They would regard each of my son’s perilous follies as successful manifestations of evolutionary pressures: a pitiful consolation, I can assure you, when you are trimming singed hair from your child’s bangs and hoping the other guests at the barbecue won’t ask too many questions. Economists Moshe Hoffman and Erez Yoeli recently spooled out the familiar chain of assumptions in the Rady Business Journal:

When males take on extra risk in foraging for food, ousting rivals, and fighting over territory, they are rewarded with dozens, even hundreds of mates, and many, many babies. A worthwhile gamble! Not so for the females.

Dozens? Hundreds? Sure—if you’re a red deer, or the leader of an ancient Mongol empire. While Hoffman and Yoeli’s arguments mostly refer to the “fighting” part of Darwin’s sexual selection theory (intrasexual selection), other researchers suggest that risk taking also adds to men’s appeal as a mate; the “charming” part of Darwin’s subtheory (or intersexual selection). As psychologists Michael Baker Jr. and Jon Maner explain:

Among men, risky behaviors have potential for displaying to potential mates characteristics such as social dominance, confidence, ambition, skill, and mental acuity, all of which are highly desired by women seeking a romantic partner.

But for women, there are no such benefits to be gained from taking risks. This is because—the authors seem to try to put it as tactfully as they can—“men tend to desire women with characteristics that signal high reproductive capacity (e.g., youth) rather than characteristics that might be signaled by risk-taking.” In other words, so long as the hair is glossy, the skin smooth, and the hip-to-waist ratio pleasing, then a cringingly low sense of self-worth, apathy, incompetence, and stupidity are relative trifles, more easily overlooked from the male perspective.

There is an element of uncertainty to everything we do.

Having drawn on a vintage version of sexual selection to claim an evolutionary imperative for male risk taking, the next obvious step is to argue that this is a major contributor to persistent sex inequalities, helping to explain why fame, fortune, and corner offices are disproportionately acquired by men. Hoffman and Yoeli, for instance, argue that:

stocks have higher average returns than bonds, and competitive jobs can be quite lucrative. These rewards make gender differences in risk preferences one of the pre-eminent causes of gender difference in the labor market.

The reference to competitive jobs points to a related explanation for occupational inequalities also much in vogue within the economics community: competition. Competition also involves risk taking since outcomes are uncertain, and the possible gains have to be weighed against the costs of taking part and defeat. Thus:

Over the past decade, economists have become increasingly interested in investigating whether gender differences in competitiveness may help explain why labor market differences persist. If women are more reluctant to compete, then they may be less likely to seek promotions or to enter male-dominated and competitive fields…




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