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Rice University research finds that gender does matter when taking risks in business

Men are more prone to take risks for personal financial gain than women, and women are more likely than men to take risks to protect themselves from financial loss. Pexels

When motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel leapt over cars, vans and fountains, it was little surprise that the person pulling those stunts was a man. That's not to say women never partake in high-risk behavior (Danica Patrick, anyone?). But decades of research confirm that men really are more inclined to take risks.

Snake River Canyon and the Indy 500 aside, economic life offers plenty of risks as well. When these risks involve investing, men under certain circumstances are more likely than women to take dangerous leaps, but why?

Rice Businesses professor Vikas Mittal joined Xin He of the University of Florida and J. Jeffrey Inman of the University of Pittsburgh in three studies to examine why men and women engage in risky business. Specifically, the team wanted to test whether each gender's risk-taking was moderated by a trait called issue capability: a decision-makers' belief that he or she can solve an issue.

The team grounded their work in agency-communion theory. This posits that men are more driven by goals that further self-interest ("agentic" goals) and women are more driven by goals that further coexistence ("communion" goals).

Based on this theory, the researchers hypothesized that men making investment decisions would take greater risks as their issue capability rose. This would occur because men, who are more focused on maximizing gains, would become more risk-seeking as their self-capability perceptions increased.

Conversely, the researchers theorized, women who faced similar investment decisions would focus on avoiding loss — even when their issue capability rose. This fundamental difference in investing perspective — men trying to maximize any gain versus women trying to minimize any loss – would be at the heart of a diametrically opposite stance on financial risk-taking.

All three studies proved the theory to be correct.

In the first study, the researchers asked men and women to wager money on Daily Double questions in "Jeopardy!" The male contestants with higher issue capability (i.e. demonstrated knowledge of the category) took the biggest risks. The women contestants showed equal levels of betting behavior regardless of whether they had high issue capability or not.

In the second study, the researchers dove into the psychology underlying gender and issue capability. First, the researchers primed male and female participants to believe they had either good or bad track records with risky investment decisions. Then they asked both groups to imagine they could invest $20,000 at varying levels of risk.

When it came to investing for gains, the researchers found, the women's beliefs about their issue capability made no real difference in their financial choices. Even after they had been primed to think they were highly capable investors, the women participants were less prone than the men to focus on the upside potential

And the men? Those who believed they were "capable" made the riskiest investment decisions. They also reported the highest number of thoughts about the positive potential of the various investment scenarios. Statistical analysis proved that these gain-maximization thoughts egged them on in their risk-taking.

On the other hand, those male participants who weren't primed to feel capable showed risk-taking patterns identical to that of the female participants. The results, in other words, suggest that the key difference between men and women's risk-taking is not innate — but stems from their self-conviction in investment competence.

The third study examined these processes in yet another way, by giving female and male participants the chance to maximize gains through making investments in stocks, or to minimize losses through buying insurance. Once again, the men primed to see themselves as ace investors made the riskiest investments. The women who felt themselves especially capable kept their risk-taking steady.

The women's behavior only changed when they thought they were subpar investors. When both women and men were told they were stock market duds, the women were more likely than the men to buy insurance — in other words, to take traditional measures to defend against loss.

Risk-taking choices, in other words, can no longer be written off as just boys being boys or girls being girls. More accurately, boys will be boys when a male investor thinks he is especially capable and that taking a risk will benefit him personally. That's not always a good thing. A female investor, who will typically focus on minimizing potential loss, can contribute a lot to investing decisions. Taking a big risk, as many an investor knows, isn't always the best move.

Mittal's findings inspire a list of possibilities for future research. What will happen to these behaviors as more women assume leadership jobs and more men get to show their skill as caregivers? Should senior management teams have both male and female representation to balance out the upsides and downsides of investment decisions? What about at home: would household decisions change for the better if both the man and the woman contributed their perspective?

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, the CRE community needs to prioritize marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Photography by Peter Molick

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes, and in recent years winter storms have become an increasing concern. Following the winter freeze in 2021, more than 4 million Texans were left without power, water, or heat. The state’s infrastructure system was adversely impacted concurrently — including workplaces, hospitals, transportation, homes, drinking water distribution, electric power generation, agriculture, and grocery stores. Now, a new potential disaster is on the horizon. Recent research shows Houston is most likely to be affected by wildfires, a climate-related challenge that our city has not previously faced.

According to the Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 U.S. Climate Action Survey, since 2019, only 18 percent of Americans believe their communities are built to withstand climate change. The good news is Americans overwhelmingly agree that addressing climate change is urgent. The question many are asking is — “How can we take action to better prepare buildings and cities to weather the climate challenge?” The solution is simple. In order to understand where we need to go, we must understand how we got here.

With a population that has more than doubled in the past 50 years, it is challenging for most Houstonians to imagine a time when The Bayou City was nothing more than agricultural lands and oil fields. Today, Houston is known for being the fourth-most populous city in the United States. It is a sprawling concrete jungle home to the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions. When reflecting on the past 50 years, one can’t help but evaluate the city’s successes and shortcomings. While Houston has succeeded in becoming a diverse, international city, we have sacrificed the very ecology that once made up one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas. By 1980, Houston possessed the least amount of green space per person in the country.

As new developments popped up across the city, it became difficult to convince developers to pursue third-party certifications such as LEED, a globally recognized symbol of sustainability that provides the framework for designing healthy, efficient, carbon saving buildings. We can credit Hines with being one of the few developers in Houston to prioritize green design during the early-2000s. City leaders also began advocating for resilient strategies and more green space to attract and retain international talent and businesses. In recent years, we have seen an increase in buildings that are achieving LEED certification, and soon it will become the baseline.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, Photography by Shau Lin Hon, Slyworks Photography

An example of a project leading the way for resilient design is The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). In 2017 the organization completed work on its LEED Platinum Certified headquarters which was designed to meet the ENERGY STAR certification rate of 99 (out of 100). This means that the building is more efficient than 99 percent of all office buildings in the United States. Skanska is another construction and development company bringing a sustainable mindset to downtown Houston with its work on Bank of America Tower. In 2019, the 775,000 square foot building became the largest LEED v4 Platinum Core and Shell certified project in the world to date and was developed with harvesting technology that will significantly reduce energy usage.

It’s also important to understand the impact that the climate crisis is having on people. 91 percent of U.S. Gen Z/Millennials have been affected by extreme weather events since 2019, the most of any generation. These experiences have resulted in two generations preparing to react and combat climate change and has encouraged a spirit of transparency among companies who choose to share their environmental goals and strategies.

For architects and designers, addressing building and energy codes is proving to be the next big design consideration. As codes progress in the coming years, the result will be more unique and unexpected building designs.

When reimagining the use of buildings, Architects Paulina Abella and Tayler Trojcak propose an experimental process for repurposing vacant buildings called High Hackers. The concept provides an opportunity for developers to offer prime downtown real estate to people with diverse skill sets, whom they call “hackers,” to pursue projects shaped by their individual ideas. These hackers—makers, artists, and academics—will work alongside one another in spaces that encourage them to coexist with creatives from other fields and disciplines. More importantly, it fosters a collaborative, organic, and innovative workflow.

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, we encourage prioritizing marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Promoting awareness and optimism in our communities is another simple yet effective way to make a difference. For businesses, creating a sense of continuity in the face of climate events, investing in energy and resource efficiency and adaptation, and addressing insurability and the long-term value of real estate will ultimately help lead Houston and its community members toward a place of preparedness and resiliency.

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Rives Taylor directs Gensler’s Global Design Resilience teams and initiatives and has been a faculty member of both Rice University and the University of Houston for 30 years. Maria Perez is a design resilience leader for Gensler’s South Central region and director of sustainable design based in Gensler’s Houston office.

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