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Lead Your Team Women in Business

Risky Business: Do Women Fold Under Pressure at Work?

Risky Business: Do Women Fold Under Pressure at Work?
Credit: RAFAL FABRYKIEWICZ/Shutterstock

Do dicey workplace situations cause people to fold under pressure? For women, the answer may be yes, new research suggests.

Risky situations tend to increase anxiety for women, leading them to perform worse than they would under normal circumstances, according to a new study presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. However, the study didn't find this to be true in men.

Susan Fisk, one of the study's authors and a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford University, defines a risky situation as any setting with an uncertain outcome in which there can be both positive and negative results, depending on some combination of skill and chance. She said that in the workplace, risky situations occur all the time, including when people raise their hand to offer an idea at a meeting full of judgmental co-workers, giving a boss feedback on his or her performance and volunteering for a difficult workplace assignment.

As part of the study, Fisk conducted an experiment that was designed to determine whether risky workplace situations increased the anxiety of women and men. In the experiment, participants were given one of four scenarios presented in either a risky or nonrisky way. After reading their scenario, participants were asked to think and write about the reasoning they would use to decide what to do in the situation they received, how they believed they would act in the situation and how the situation would make them feel. That was followed by an anxiety test.

Fisk found that when scenarios were framed in a risky way, women were more anxious than when the scenarios were framed in a nonrisky way, whereas the framing of the scenarios didn't have a statistically significant effect on men's anxiety. [Man Up? The Personality Traits That Land Women 'Masculine' Jobs ]

"My findings have troublesome implications for women's ability to achieve equality in the workplace," Fisk said in a statement. "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 thinks women may become more anxious in risky situations because these types of circumstances are riskier for women than they are for men.

"Prior research suggests that even if a woman has the same objective performance as a man, others are likely to judge her performance as worse and attribute her failure to incompetence instead of poor luck," Fisk said. "Furthermore, this body of research suggests that even absent the judgment of others, failure in a risky situation is more costly to women, as it may reinforce or create self-doubt about their own competence."

Increased anxiety in risky settings is problematic for women because it may depress their ability to achieve, Fisk noted. After conducting a second experiment and reviewing test scores from an engineering course at a selective private university in the United States, Fisk found that women have worse task performance than men in risky situations, even when they have the same ability in a nonrisky setting.

"On the surface, risky situations may not appear to be particularly disadvantageous to women, but these findings suggest otherwise," Fisk said.

Originally published on Business News Daily.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.