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As mother to both a girl and boy, I see firsthand the gender expectations we impose upon our children. I try to maintain some level of gender neutrality and yet I can’t help but observe certain stereotypes playing out. And one of these is how kids respond to risk.
If you’ve ever been to a playground and watched the children playing, you might have noted that the boys are generally more adventurous – climbing the trees and the climbing frames, swinging wildly on the monkey bars – while the girls tend to be more tentative.
And this isn’t specific to the current generation of children. A study carried out in the late 90s examined the approaches girls and boys took to potentially risky activities. The conclusion was that boys rated risk as lower than the girls did.
It was perceived vulnerability to injury that girls found to be the best predictor of injury risk ratings, whereas for boys it was judged severity of potential injury. So girls avoided an activity altogether if they thought it may harm them in some way, while boys gave it a go, as long as the consequences weren’t going to be catastrophic.
I was just above the age bracket of the children surveyed in that study when it was published and the results certainly ring true of the general feelings I had towards risk, as a child. I was less inclined to take risks than my brother, and the other boys I played with.
And now I see the same patterns emerging in my children’s generation – where the boys often have a gung-ho attitude towards any activities that could be perceived as risky and the girls seem to be more careful.
As a society, we position boys as adventurers and girls as nurturers and these notions are instilled through the language we use and the toys they’re offered – girls are ‘pretty’ and expected to play with dolls; boys are ‘strong’ and engage with more active toys: cars and trains.
This treatment may well affect our children’s propensity towards risk. And of course, how we develop as children directly impacts how we feel as adults, so it’s no surprise that women are less likely to engage in risky behaviour than men.
Again, studies show that women predict a higher probability of negative consequences and a greater severity of potential negative consequences when exposed to risk. And because of our lifelong avoidance of risk, we also predict less enjoyment from activities that may present risk.
Though what’s not conclusive is whether women evaluate the probability of negative outcomes differently to men; assuming that they would be more harmed by a negative outcome. Or they assess the probability of an unfavourable outcome as being greater, without necessarily projecting a stronger negative or emotional reaction.
Either way, our exposure to risk – and whether we partake in it or not – feeds through every aspect of our lives: home, work, relationships. Interestingly, the one area women are more likely to take risk is in social situations. For instance, sharing a contrary opinion publicly or speaking honestly with friends and family when they’ve upset them.
In terms of business, we know that there are twice as many male entrepreneurs in the UK than females, despite the fact that there are one million more women living here than men and I wonder if this is related to women being less inclined to take a risk; ie. set up a business that could fail.
I know that I’ve transformed from a risk-averse child to a risk-taking adult – particularly in business. So I asked five female entrepreneurs from my generation whether or not they too consider themselves to be risk-takers and how this affects their business…
Hayley Berry: branding expert and founder of herbrand.co.uk
“I’ve always taken leaps of faith to help push my business forward, more so than I believe someone in an employed secure job would feel comfortable with,” says Hayley Berry. “However, I think there’s a difference between taking silly risks and taking strategic risks.”
By ‘silly risks’, Berry is referring to “spending all your bill money, maxing out your credit cards and borrowing to cash after an idea. Or doing it because everyone else it doing it,” rather than because it’s the right decision for you and your business.
She notes that there are very few opportunities in business that will guarantee a return which means that really, all entrepreneurs are risk-takers to some extent. But the risks she has taken include leaving full-time employed work to start her own business.
“I’ve left employment three times now, with thoughts of ‘is this going to work?’, ‘Will I be able to pay the bills?’, ‘Will I have to go back with my tail between my legs?’.” But the risk has paid off, as she now works full-time for herself, with a successful business and waiting list of clients.
Cat Price: founder of Pattie & Co.
“I set up my most recent business, Pattie and Co., last year. In the first instance, I chose a business model that gave me minimal risk in terms of finance and the amount of time it required so that I could continue my day job,” says Cat Price.
She settled on products that were easy to source, design and manufacture, and that she could order in low quantities. “I didn’t spend more than £1500 to kick off,” she said. “In face, the biggest commitment I made was to using Shopify instead of Etsy.”
But after three months, once she’d demonstrated to herself that the business was viable – and there was a market for her rainbow baby muslins – she decided to commit more of her finances and time to the business.
She invested more in packaging, larger orders, more ads. Also, a management accountant. And she started to dedicate more time to the business which meant losing out on other paid client work. She was leaving her comfort zone but it felt like measured risk.
“I’ve had to set some ambitious financial targets to help me move the business forward,” she says. “I consider myself a risk-taker – you don’t move forward in life without taking risk, in my view. But I combine those risks with strategic thinking and my gut instinct.”
She believes this combination of instinct, careful planning and being open to risk is where her strengths lie.
Laura Alvarado, founder of Tomato Tutors
“I’m a definite risk-taker,” says Laura Alvarado, founder of a holistic education centre for children. “And this month I’m proving that to myself by opening a Montessori cafe within our education studio.”
She currently offers one-to-one and group tutoring, nature and science-focused holiday camps, Forest School activities and workshops in her shop in the UK’s north London. So a cafe is venturing into the entirely new sphere of catering.
“It means taking a risk financially,” says Alvarado, “and leaping into the unknown, as I have very little experience in the food and drink world.” But she says she’s used to taking risks and that they almost always pay off.
Sophie Bradshaw: writing consultant, book coach and editor of writing magazine GoWrite
“I suppose I took a hug risk going self-employed,” says Sophie Bradshaw. “I’m divorced and support three children by myself, so leaving employed work was very scary. When I left my job I had enough money for three months and then my account would be empty.”
But she did it anyway. “I just had to make it work,” she says. “It’s definitely taught me that the very worst rarely happens, and things generally work out ok if you let them.”
Joy Foster: founder of TechPixies
“I’m definitely a risk-taker. I think my early circumstances in life encouraged me to be one. My dad died when I was only 21 and I decided life was too short to do the norm,” says Joy Foster.
She feels, however, that her risks have been more calculated than those taken by the males around her. “I built three businesses before I decided to go for investment,” she says. “But in the meantime, nearly jeopardised my family’s finances by trying to build a business without it.”
The risk has paid off. She recently raised £150,000 to take TechPixie’s social media training programme fully online and they’ve now helped over 200 women to up-skill. They’ve also won several awards including Women in Business Startup of the Year.
June 10, 2019 at 06:45AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs