Are there gender differences in risk taking? Men are higher in impulsive sensation-seeking, like bungee jumping while on vacation (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000), but they are only slightly more likely than women (d = 0.13) to engage in risky behaviours that may have undesirable or dangerous outcomes in their daily lives, like speeding or running yellow lights (Byrnes, Miller, & Schafer, 1999). The size of the gender difference in risk taking depends on the context, the type of risk involved, and to some extent, age (Byrnes et al., 1999). As you can see in Table below, the effect sizes, although small to medium, consistently show that men take more risks than women. Gender differences are the greatest in the amount and kind of risky behaviours people have actually engaged in and least when it comes to attitudes toward risky activities.
The largest gender differences occur for volunteering for experiments with a chance of physical or psychological harm; engaging in games of physical skill under high stakes, like shuffleboard or ring toss; and intellectual risk taking, where one’s lack of skill might be uncovered. Differences are smaller for self-reported risk taking while driving (e.g., damage to one’s vehicle, physical injury, traffic tickets), gambling (playing chance games with little or no skill involved), observed driving (e.g., making a left turn in front of oncoming traffic, gliding through a stop sign rather than coming to a complete stop), and engaging in physical activities that involve the potential for physical harm such as climbing a steep embankment, playing in the street, trying out gymnastics equipment (e.g., a balance beam), and taking a ride on an animal (e.g., a donkey). Gender differences are trivial for engagement in self-reported risky behaviours like smoking, drinking, drug use, and sexual activities.
Even though there were significant gender differences across all age groups, from childhood to adulthood, what was considered risky tended to vary by age. For example, men showed a sharper increase in drinking and drug use from high school to college than women. Women were more likely to smoke in college than men. Yet after college, the drinking and drug use of women increased, surpassing that of men.
Another interesting gender difference is that boys and men tended to take more risks even when it was a bad idea to do so. Girls and women tended toward the opposite: avoiding risks even in situations where risk might have paid off, such as the intellectual risk taking that is involved on practice SATs, for example. Byrnes et al. (1999) surmised that males may encounter failure or other negative consequences more often than females, but the risk-averse strategy of females may inadvertently hold girls and women back from achieving success in many areas.
Finally, these gender differences in risky behaviours may be lessoning over time. The mean effect size for studies conducted from 1964 to 1980 (d = 0.20) was larger than for those conducted from 1981 to 1997 (d = 0.13). Has this trend continued into the present day? That question will have to wait for the next round of meta-analyses.