Research has shown that men, in general, are higher risk-takers than women. It’s believed that women’s behavior is taught, not inherited.
To decide if women are more reluctant to risk than men, researchers studied over 500 children from 2 different ethnic groups in Yunnan Province in China.
Children from the Han community are brought up in a traditional patriarchal community while the Mosuo are the only matrilineal ethnic minority group that is raised with opposing normalities from the Han.
In Mosuo, the grandmothers are the head of the household with women making all decisions. They are on a much higher level or equal to men. Children are raised in their homes with their mothers, her brothers, sisters, and their maternal granduncles, while fathers are excluded.
Studies have shown that when children mingle in school, they are exposed to someone else’s culture. At first, each group showed opposing gender norms. Girls from Mosuo were greater risk-takers than the boys. The longer Mosuo children mingled with Han students, the more Mosuo girls became reluctant in taking chances. Over time, they fell behind boys in the same group by the age of 11.
Another study was conducted in Yongning Township involving four elementary schools consisting of grade one to grade five with 10 to 30 students in each class and each grade. Mosuo students made up 40% of the group. 185 students were studied in 2015 and 167 in 2016.
Participants took part in a lottery to test their level of risk-taking. In general, Han girls were more risk reluctant than the boys but Mosuo girls were less risk reluctant than the boys. The study further showed that in the first grade, Mosuo girls were quite brave at taking risks over boys, but this changed as they started getting older. However, this same pattern did not exist in the Han girls because the girls, through all levels of school, were more risk reluctant than Han boys.
The study suggests that becoming more risk reluctant at one given age is not due to their genetics.
The associate professor at the University of Houston’s Department of Economics, Elaine M. Liu, said that many studies will find women are more risk reluctant than men but this study shows that the gender gap in attitudes toward risks among children is influenced by culture and social environments and may not be an inherited trait.
While, in the beginning, children’s risk behaviors usually follow those of their parents, when they enter school, their behaviors seem to reflect that of their fellow classmates. Therefore, their social environment seems to be an important factor for affecting children’s risk levels.
Exploring risk reluctance could provide valuable information about why men and women opt for different careers, and why women end up with a gender pay gap.
Professor Liu said the study was limited because researchers did not know if behavioral changes were permanent or if children would revert back to their parents’ normal state once they finished school and moved back to their villages. That said, other studies did not address other behaviors that are associated with gender norms including competitiveness.
Professor Cordelia Fine at the University of Melbourn was not involved in these studies but believed the given studies should be regarded as provisional until replicated including age, grade, and peers. She further said, the common assumption is the tasks tap into some kind of stable property of risk reluctance in some, but research finds different tasks are supposed to be eliciting risk preferences which yield different results.