A study claims pupils educated within an all-female environment are much more likely to take chances than their coed peers
Girls educated within an all-female environment, such as these at Townley Grammar School, are more likely to take risks. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
If you want your daughter to be a high-flying businesswoman or banker, send her to a single-sex school. This is the startling conclusion drawn from new research charting the complex relationship between gender and risk-taking.
Next month's edition of the Economic Journal carries the results of an experiment by two economists at the University of Essex. Alison Booth and Patrick Nolen devised a series of questions for 260 male and female pupils that were designed to measure their appetite for risk. The pupils, from eight state single-sex and coeducational schools in Essex and Suffolk, were asked to choose between a real-stakes lottery and a sure bet. Option 1 guaranteed they won £5, while option 2 entered them in a lottery in which they would flip a coin and receive £11 if the coin came up heads or £2 tails.
The economists found that, on average, girls were 16% less likely than boys to opt for the lottery. But significantly, they found that girls in coed schools were 36% less likely to select the lottery than their male peers. The findings appear to confirm the long-held view that males have a greater appetite for risk than females and go some way to indicating that this may be down to the environment in which a young person grows up. Girls at single-sex schools were also willing to invest more in a hypothetical risky investment than coed female and all-male pupils.
The findings have important implications for the emerging field of experimental economics, which examines why there is an under-representation of women in the City. The economists write: "If the majority of remuneration in high-paying jobs is tied to bonuses based on a company's performance... women may choose not to take high-paying jobs because of the uncertainty."
Anecdotal evidence suggests the economists may be on to something. Some of the City's most successful businesswomen went to all-girls' schools. Alison Cooper, chief executive of FTSE 100 company Imperial Tobacco, was a pupil at Tiffin Girls' School, Kingston upon Thames; fund manager Nicola Horlick and financier Baroness Vadera both attended single-sex – albeit private – institutions.
The economists admit they have yet to explain their findings fully. However, they suggest that "adolescent females... may be… inhibited by culturally driven norms and beliefs about the appropriate mode of female behaviour – avoiding risk." Once they are placed in an all-female environment, however, they say, this inhibition is reduced. As Booth and Nolen conclude: "No longer reminded of their own gender identity and society's norms, they find it easier to make riskier choices than women who are placed in a coed class."