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Can Single-Sex Education Make Women Less Risk-Averse?

(Photo: Eric James Sarmiento)

Research indicates that women are generally more risk-averse than men, and this risk-aversion is often cited as a partial explanation for the shortage of women in high-level corporate positions. A new essay by Alison Booth, Lina Cardona Sosa, and Patrick Nolen suggests that single-sex education may change women’s risk preferences.  In a recent paper, the researchers conducted a controlled experiment:

[W]e designed a controlled experiment using all incoming first year economics and business students at a British university. The subjects were asked to make choices over real-stakes lotteries at two distinct dates – the first week of term and the eighth week of term…

Prior to the start of the academic year, students were randomly assigned to classes. Our ‘nurturing’ environment is the experimental peer-group or class to which students were randomly assigned by the timetabling office. The class groups were of three different types – all female, all male, or mixed gender.

The results were striking:

[W]omen are significantly less likely to make risky choices than men at both dates. However, after eight weeks in the single-sex class environment – within the larger coeducational milieu – women were significantly more likely to choose the lottery than their counterparts in coeducational groups. No such result was found for men in the single-sex groups. In other words, after eight weeks, the women in the single-sex classes were no more risk averse than men.

The authors say their research indicates that “gender difference in behaviour under uncertainty found in previous studies might actually reflect social learning rather than inherent gender traits.”