I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked myself: “Why do women shy away from job-related risk taking?”
As a gender, women are not innately risk-averse. We willingly take risks that we perceive will improve our personal lot. We plunge into the unknown, getting into relationships and marriages—or out of them. To keep our kids safe and happy, we would risk anything from personal comfort to financial stability.
So where does this fear of taking risks in the workplace come from and why is it so hard to shed even when it stands in the way of getting ahead?
From my years of working with talented women who aspire to higher levels in their organizations, I’ve isolated three main reasons why women are less likely to take calculated risks at work—less likely than in other venues and less likely than their male counterparts.
- Women are newer to the corporate scene than men – at least to the leadership, decision making roles. They have had less time to practice and perfect the art of effective risk taking and fewer allies to help them do it right. As relative newbies, they tend to be more cautious, more introspective, more eager to gain a firmer footing before taking a risk.
- In certain corporate contexts women are likely to take big risks. For example, in the defense of a wronged employee or to stand up for something they truly believe in. However, they tend not to take calculated risks in the day-to-day areas where risk taking is most likely to occur and most often needed. For example, managerial decision making and corporate governance.
- Women, more than men, become captives of their own perfectionism, which makes them more introverted and less likely to evaluate the business impact of their activities on the corporate world around them. This insular attitude thwarts their ability to assess risks and take the smart ones.
We at WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. have seen literally thousands of talented women come into our programs with a solidly entrenched fear of risk taking. They worry about losing status, being wrong, losing their jobs, losing allies, making enemies, being forced out. There isn’t a career negative that our attendees haven’t attributed to risk taking….and it’s our job to help them let go of the fear and develop a comfort level with the right kind of risk taking.
We chip away at that fear through our three-pronged approach of mentoring, education and networking. We help women create a strategy for identifying which risks should be taken and which ones shunned. We give them the opportunity to develop relationships with people inside and outside their organizations who can help them assess whether a risk is worth taking. We help them better understand their talents and skills as they relate to formulating a get-ahead risk taking approach.
It’s initially an uphill battle to overcome the attitudes and behaviors that support risk aversion among corporate women. But if they are going to make it to the top and stay there, it’s a battle that must be fought and won.
In my next blog I’ll go into more detail about WHY women need to take more calculated risks and how mentors can help.
Why take risks? That’s a question many corporate women ask themselves, especially women who have attained a modicum of success. In their minds, risk taking can upset the apple cart and begin a downward spiral that undoes what they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
Not so. This is the reality:
When you ignore an opportunity you deem risky,
you have already made a risky decision.
Let’s be clear. No one is saying women should become the corporate equivalent of tightrope walkers without a net. However, to summarily dismiss new job offers… to fail to volunteer for visible new projects…to sit back and wait to be noticed are just a few examples of how women build barriers to their own success.
There are so many upsides to taking smart risks. At the broadest level, according to Juli Ann Reynolds, president and CEO of the Tom Peters Company: “People who take more risks tend to learn more and experience more personal growth.”
Additionally, there are critical tangible benefits of intelligent risk taking:
- You are more likely to get noticed by the people who matter
- You demonstrate your ability to assess growth opportunities…in essence playing the game “just like the boys”
- You position yourself as a leader who can make the tough decisions
- You are more likely to have highly-visible, break-through successes
- Your team will see you in a different light
- Even if the risk doesn’t pan out, you will have gained a new level of self confidence and resilience by having tried
At WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. we understand that developing the skills of a successful risk taker is a difficult and arduous process, which women should not attempt alone. Helping our participants become “risk ready” is one of the key roles our mentors play. They help their mentees in a variety of ways including:
- Sharing their own successes (and failures) as risk takers
- Helping mentees assess which risks are worth taking
- Providing a safe sounding board to tackle fears and behaviors that may be standing in the way of successful risk taking
- Holding their mentees accountable to push past their fears and develop appropriate risk taking skills
To sum up the last two blogs: As a rule, women tend to be more risk averse at work than their male counterparts and this fear of risk can hold them back from reaching the highest levels of corporate governance. Helping talented women shed their risk aversion is part and parcel of our mission at WOMEN Unlimited. We provide tools, techniques and support for our participants to become intelligent risk takers, with mentors playing a crucial role in this process.
Dr. Rosina L. Racioppi
President & CEO
WOMEN Unlimited, Inc.