Are Women Better Decision-Makers?

Recently, the New York Times reported the findings of multiple studies suggesting that women are better decision-makers than men. Of course, "better" is a subjective term — neuroscientists have actually discovered that women are potentially better-equipped for making decisions under stress, partially because they are more cautious in terms of taking risks.

Cognitive neuroscientists Mara Mather of the University of Southern California and Nichole R. Lighthall of Duke University decided to test this hypothesis by asking both men and women to draw cards from multiple decks. Some of the decks were "safe," meaning that they offered small, frequent rewards, while others were "risky" in that they offered infrequent, but bigger rewards. The results confirmed that men are more focused on riskier, bigger wins by gravitating toward the latter decks.

Women, on the other hand, seem to be focused on smaller, more attainable successes. Neurobiologist Ruud van den Bos tells the New York Times that this may be due in part to the differing effects of increased cortisol in the brain. Men who experience a significant spike in cortisol during stress feel pressured to take more risks, whereas increased cortisol levels in women may actually improve their decision-making abilities.

The findings build upon a 2007 study conducted by Stephanie D. Preston at the University of Michigan that revealed men may be less aware in the moment that they're making a risky decision. On the contrary, women appear to be more cognizant of the potentially weighty effects of their actions.

But perhaps the most interesting disparity between the decision-making abilities of men and women is the fact that women become more attuned to others in the midst of stressful conditions, according to Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm of the University of Vienna. In one of their studies, men and women were asked to reach through a curtain and touch something either pleasant (feathers, cotton balls, etc.) or unpleasant (i.e. a plastic slug). Each person could see a picture of what they were touching, as well as what the person was touching a few feet away. While the expected reaction was that the participants would conflate their experience with that of the person next to them, under stressful conditions, women were more likely to empathize with what the other person was touching. On the contrary, these conditions made men more egocentric: they assumed that the person's experience was more like their own.

If these studies do in fact hold true in real life, it would then appear that women are more cautious, rational, and empathetic decision-makers. So why aren't more women calling the shots? After all, the unfortunate truth, according to Bloomberg, is that:

Women make up almost 60 percent of the labor force but fewer than 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives.

Apparently you can thank a phenomenon called the "glass cliff," which refers to the fact that even women who are highly qualified are only asked to lead in times of crisis or intense stress. Of course, there's also the issue that women are occasionally more reluctant to ask for a raise and/or promotion, and that the existing majority of men in leadership positions creates a vicious cycle of hiring more men like themselves.

But whatever the reason, this phenomenon of only extending leadership opportunities to women as a last resort has to stop. It's already been proven that women are just as effective leaders as men, and the recent confirmation of our exceptional decision-making abilities only serves as further evidence that we should join our fellow men in charge.

Join is the operative word here — contrary to what some may think, women aren't asking to take away power positions from men or gain some sort of superiority in the workplace. We're asking for the same opportunities that are extended to our equally competent male counterparts. As the recent New York Times article has proven, both men and women have unique talents to contribute to the workforce — while women may be more cautious and empathetic, the typical male propensity for risk-taking can often lead to big gains in the future. This seems to confirm what we've suspected all along to be true, that the collaboration of men and women actually strikes a desirable balance both inside and outside of the workplace.

It's also important to realize, however, that men and women can't be pigeonholed into possessing certain skill sets. Just as there are female risk-takers, there are also men who adopt a more careful approach to business. Rather than focusing on whether a certain gender is a greater asset than the other, therefore, we would all be better off focusing on the individual. Of course, this can only be done if all individuals are given the chance to prove their capabilities regardless of age, sex, race, or gender. And that starts with making more room for minorities in the workforce.

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