Mental & Emotional Health

Risky Work Scenarios Make Women Anxious & Less Competent

Risky situations at work increase anxiety for women and hurt their job performance, according to a study done at Stanford University and presented at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in August 2014 in San Francisco. On the other hand, study author Susan R. Fisk found that anxiety did not raise anxiety levels for men and that men’s job performance was unaffected.

A release from the association explains that Fisk defines a risky situation as any setting with an uncertain outcome in which there can be both positive or negative results, depending on some combination of skill and chance.

According to Fisk, people often think of an extreme physical or financial risk when they think about a “risky situation.” Yet, in reality, people encounter risky situations all of the time. Fisk cites raising one’s hand to offer an idea at a meeting full of judgmental co-workers, giving a boss feedback on his or her performance, and volunteering for a difficult workplace assignment as examples of risky situations.

In her mixed methods study, Fisk relies on data from three sources: two experiments and test scores from an engineering course at a selective private university on the West Coast of the United States.

The goal of the first experiment, which was conducted online using U.S. adults ranging in age from 18 to 81, was to determine whether risky workplace situations increased the anxiety of women and men. In this experiment, participants were given one of four scenarios presented in either a risky or non-risky way. For instance, participants who were asked to imagine a work-related group meeting were either told that the other members of the group understood that bad ideas were part of the brain-storming process (the non-risky framing) or that the other group members were extremely judgmental of bad ideas (the risky framing).

After reading their scenario, participants were asked to think and write about the reasoning they would use to decide what to do in the situation they received, how they believed they would act in the situation, and how the situation would make them feel. After participants finished thinking and writing about their scenario, they took an anxiety test.

Fisk found that when scenarios were framed in a risky way, women were more anxious than when the scenarios were framed in a non-risky way. Women who received risky scenarios scored 13.6 percent higher on the anxiety test than those who received non-risky scenarios. The framing of the scenarios did not have a statistically significant effect on men’s anxiety.