Women experience higher anxiety when in risky situations at work, according to researchers, which may impair their performance.
The research team, including Susan R. Fisk, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford University, CA, recently presented their findings at the American Sociological Association's 109th Annual Meeting.
Fisk defines a risky situation as being any environment that may offer an uncertain outcome - a circumstance in which a mix of skill and chance can induce either a positive or negative result.
She notes that a risky situation is commonly associated with physical or financial liabilities but says that many of us are frequently involved in precarious circumstances. Putting forward an idea at a work meeting in front of colleagues can be a risky situation, for example, or volunteering for a challenging assignment in the workplace.
In their study, Fisk and colleagues investigated how risky situations in the workplace affected anxiety in both men and women.
Women more anxious than men in risky situations
Firstly, the team conducted an online experiment involving American adults aged between 18 and 81 years.
Participants were presented with a set of workplace scenarios that were either risky or non-risky. In one scenario, for example, participants were asked to imagine they were in a group meeting at work. Some participants were told that other colleagues understood that bad ideas put forward are part of the brain-storming process, while other participants were told that colleagues would be very judgmental of bad ideas.
The subjects were then asked to describe what they would do in each scenario, how they would act and how the scenario would make them feel, before undergoing an anxiety test.
The researchers found that women who were given the risky scenarios scored 13.6% higher on the anxiety tests, compared with women who were given the non-risky scenarios. Furthermore, no significant difference was found in anxiety levels between men presented with risky or non-risky scenarios.
Explaining a potential reason behind this finding, Fisk says that these type of scenarios in the workplace are generally riskier for women. She notes that past research indicates that even if a woman performs the same as a man, others are likely to judge her as being worse and put the failure down to incompetence rather than bad luck.
Test scores worse for women than for men
In the next experiment, the team wanted to see how risky situations affected task performance in men and women.
In person, participants were asked 20 standardized test questions. Each participant was told he or she could bet money on the answer, which would make the situation risky.
Fisk believes the team's results may have "troublesome implications" for a woman's ability to achieve equality at work.
They were informed that they would have $15 if no bets were placed, but if they did place bets, they could win between $5 and $55, depending on the amount of money they bet and how accurate their answers were.
The researchers found that compared with men, women answered an average of 11% fewer questions correctly in the risky situation.
Similar findings were seen in an additional analysis, which involved analyzing test grades from a large undergraduate engineering course. In the midterm exam of this course, students were asked to reveal how much confidence they had in their answers.
The researchers explain that this created a risky situation, as students could lose points based on their confidence; higher confidence in correct answers led to higher test scores, while higher confidence in incorrect answers produced lower test scores.
Students could gain a score between 33% and 100% on this test, and if they said they had no confidence in any of their answers, they were guaranteed to score 50%.
Results of the tests revealed that the scores of women were an average of 4% lower than those of men. In the final exam of the course - in which students did not have to state the confidence in their answers - no differences in scores between women and men were found.
"On the surface, risky situations may not appear to be particularly disadvantageous to women, but these findings suggest otherwise," says Fisk.
Findings have 'troublesome implications' for women in the workplace
These findings suggest that because women experience anxiety in risky situations, this can impair their performance. Fisk believes the team's results may have "troublesome implications" for a woman's ability to achieve equality at work:
"People frequently encounter high-risk, high-reward situations in workplaces, and if women avoid these situations or perform more poorly in them because they are more anxious, they will reap fewer rewards than otherwise similar men."
Fisk adds that these findings may also explain why there are fewer women than men in positions of leadership and power. "Success in these kinds of circumstances is often a precursor to career advancement and promotion," she notes.
As a result of the team's findings, Fisk suggests employers should try to avoid putting employees in risky situations.
"We live in an economy that demands innovation and diversity of thought," she says. "If encouraging businesses to decrease the prevalence of risky environments allows employers and companies to get better ideas and enhanced performance from their employees, it is a win-win solution for both women and employers."
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the journal BMC Psychology, which claimed men are more forgetful than women.
Written by Honor Whiteman