Have you ever been in an airplane when it stalls? I was twelve when dad tipped us straight up into the solid blue expanse of sky – allowing gravity to grip our chests – and gunned our little single prop Cessna vertical. We chugged forward briefly until the lift over the wings dissipated, the engine choked for lack of air and the prop stopped. One heartbeat later, gravity won and our little metal pod literally tipped sideways away from wide open blue to begin its rapid descent towards the green-brown hard crust of the earth. Dad, being a military, commercial and recreational pilot, smoothly brought us back to steady flight.
I don't think dad worried for a second about risking his progeny's very lives because he felt the aerodynamics, physics, and mechanical limitations of what had just happened in his bones. Me? I was thrilled, but decided right there that I didn't really need to get my wings. Bro in the back seat? Hooked. He's a corporate pilot today.
Did this experience make me risk-averse? Nope. But as I study risk analysis and gender through the lens of the research we're pulling together for The Woman Effect there is only one thing clear: the data on professional women and risk is complicated and contradictory.
The Nature of Risk
This uncertainty about professional women and risk makes total sense. The nature of risk is complicated and contradictory because “risk” itself is largely situational, can be mitigated and is often subject to differing perceptions.
For example, when it comes to personal risk my husband will gallivant off with my teenage sons to climb a 14,000ft peak with nothing but ropes and little metal pins holding their lives from gravity's claim, but my corporate job hopping, transformational entrepreneurial career gives him butterflies in his stomach. These kinds of risk are largely personal, and relate directly to our personal sense of mastery over the elements of our potential success or downfall. My husband has a confidence in his physical strength that I don't have in my own, and I have confidence in my business acumen and drive he doesn't share in his own career. Yet, we are happily married and there are plenty of female mountain climbers (like the one that got him down safely off that mountain!) and male entrepreneurs.
Seeing the pattern? The pattern of personal risk is not gender-specific.
What the Research Says
What the research says about women, risk and business is damn confusing. If you just read the highlights you’d come away believing,
- women break the rules and take business risks more often (Caliper);
- women are biologically programmed to take fewer risks, especially when surrounded by men (Vox*, Virginia Tech);
This is enough to make your head spin.
Reading through the research, though, I think I see one pattern that none of the research highlighted but that just may be the critical factor in understanding this issue, and this factor hinges on the definition of risk itself. If risk is defined as “a wing and a prayer,” “competition-and-testosterone-induced hope” or “gut instinct”**, then women seem to be less willing to engage in it; however if risk is defined as “calculated, researched, understood and evaluated,” perhaps women are more willing to take it on – even when it involves breaking the rules (often a risky endeavor on its own).
Common sense tells us that given these definitions – as the last two studies above confirm – women are more comfortable taking calculated risks and tend to perform better when they do.
The Choice is Yours
All these statistics are just numbers. There are real people on both sides of the statistical divides and the good news is that you get to choose which side you want to be on as you manage your career. How can you choose? Access your own internal power. Assess your risk. Then. You. Choose.
Risk is a calculation of factors, but the discomfort it generates is an emotion, and emotions are ours to manage. When you experience unease related to the unknown (which can range from hesitation to fear), learning more about your discomfort – making it more known – can help you become more comfortable with risk. Gaining skills that increase your confidence in managing the most likely risk factors can help reduce your discomfort and make you smarter in evaluating risk. And finally, trusting yourself to think well on your feet – and learn from failure when you must – is a critical risk management skill – and it’s only gained through experience. So make sure you’re getting experience with taking risks; it’s the only way to get better at it!**
You must choose whether to be a statistic, “side” with a research pattern (they make great excuses) and say “I’m like this because…,” or to master your capabilities and emotions and manage risk in ways that bring you what you want in your career and in your life.
Me? I trust your capability completely. I know for a fact – because I have experienced it and see it daily in the amazing women I do business with – that women are supremely capable risk managers, recovering from failure, learning from success and achieving whatever they set their intention on. So are men. The ability is here inside us.
My coaching tip for you: Don't be a stat. Choose your risk profile; own it. Live it because it is yours. You will succeed when you do this.
*I’m tempted to invalidate this research for purposes of this particular article because it’s conclusions were drawn on studies done on primitive tribes and adolescent girls, neither particularly “similar” to the business women some analysts use this data to draw their conclusions about. However, because it adds to the whole “depends on how you define risk” argument I’m making, I’m leaving it in.
**Gut instinct is a fascinating subject on it’s own. I love this Harvard Business Review researchthat indicates the success of someone’s “gut” is distinctly related to his or her previous experience. So some people’s gut is simply better informed on certain subjects than others. Good to know when evaluating risk, don’t you think?