American Sociological Association

Who’s on Top? Gender Differences in Risk-Taking Produce Unequal Outcomes for High-Ability Women and Men

Research shows that men are more likely to take risks than women, but there is scant evidence that this produces gender inequality. To address this gap, I analyzed engineering exam scores that used an unusual grading procedure. I found small average gender differences in risk-taking that did not produce gendered outcomes for students of average or poor ability. But the gender gap in risk-taking among the most competent students reduced the odds that high-ability women received top exam scores. These results demonstrate that gender differences in risk-taking can produce gender inequality in outcomes among top performers. This suggests that the upward mobility of high-ability women may be depressed relative to equally competent men in male-typed institutional settings in which outcomes are influenced by both ability and risk-taking. In this manner, these results provide new insights into the microlevel social-psychological processes that produce and reproduce gender inequality.


Susan R. Fisk





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