An Updated Look at Risk Taking for Professional Women

woman typing on a laptop

A new report by KPMG for 2019 called “Risk, Resilience, Reward- Mastering the 3 Rs: The Key to Women’s Success in the Workplace” suggests that women are still cautious when it comes to risk taking in their careers with 69% of report respondents saying they are are open to taking small risks to further their career, but a lower number (43%) revealing that they are open to taking bigger risks that may be associated with career advancement.

Just 8 percent of respondents say risk taking has contributed most to their professional success, crediting task-oriented factors over leadership traits. Instead, women attributed success to good habits such as working hard (73 percent), being detail oriented (45 percent), and organized (45 percent) to their success. Other highlights from the report suggest that women are willing to take risks to ask for new assignments and projects (69%) but less keen to ask for more salary if they deem it to be risky or moving locations for a job (both 35% respectively).

Risk studies that are available on the topic and that we have written about over the years are inconclusive since there are many factors to risk taking, including personality, environment and what is perceived as risky by the taker or even by the system.

However, KPMG’s research is mostly consistent with trends that show women are not as confident as men when it comes to risk taking, including how women think about risk. Research also shows that in some cases, women are more concerned about risk and the impact on a group than men and feel more accountable for the implications of the riskier decision. There are so many factors that correlate and cause women to not want to take risks as well as societal and organizational eroders of even the most confident woman over time, not least the double bind of being “Damned if you do, Doomed if you don’t”. So, knowing all this and still being undaunted, we caught up with Michele Meyer-Shipp, KPMG’s Chief Diversity Officer to discuss this report’s trends and actions for women and men to take in light of the findings.

Nicki (NG): What parts of the report resonated with you personally or otherwise?

Michele (MMS): This report really spoke to me, as throughout my own career I’ve definitely been hesitant at times to take risks. Like the respondents in the report, I thought ‘if I just work hard, everything will happen for me’. It was all about working hard. That’s what I was taught growing up and I truly believed that was all there was to it. It was never ‘go forth and ask for what you want’ – I had to figure that out along the way.

NG: What advice do you have for women regarding risk taking?

MMS: We have to take ownership of our careers, we have to speak up and ask for what we want, and navigate the politics along the way. Don’t assume someone is going to hand you the next job just because you’re working hard; it just doesn’t work that way. Engage your board of mentors, and identify those who are sponsoring you. Your mentors are the people you choose to give you career advice. Your sponsors are the leaders who are advocating for your career. Both are incredibly important.

NG: What role does the organization have in helping women who do take risks?

MMS: Organizations have a huge role to play in helping women who take risks. First and foremost, they must make it clear that risk taking is a welcomed and valued leadership trait. This message has to come not only from the very top of the organization, but also from a woman’s immediate supervisor. From there, when a woman does take that risk, the company must support her in those efforts. For example, a risky new role requires the woman assuming that role to have the support she needs to get the job done. Does she have the right team, the right budgetary support, and so on. These are all factors an organization must consider.

NG: Since most leaders are still men, what role do men have in this?

MMS: Men need to “lean in” and support women on their teams. Some men have hit the snooze button in the wake of the #MeToo movement out of fear and uncertainty, but this is not a moment to sit on the sidelines. It is a great time to decide who we are and what we stand for and to be intentional about it. Whether you are a man or a woman, my advice is to proactively support each other, mentor each other, partner on teams together and advocate for one another. We must ‘assume good intent, until you see otherwise’ as it is a two-way street.

Men must also beware of their unconscious biases as related to women. Let’s face it, if you have a brain, you have a bias. It’s human nature. That said, men need to interrupt stereotypical assumptions they may make about women as that can inevitably lead them to make a bad decision.

NG: What surprised you about the findings in the report?

MMS: I found it really interesting that money remains the top motivator for risk taking. It runs counter to a lot of research and I kind of like that it debunks the notion we are so different. If 40% of women who responded said that they would take risks when there is an opportunity to make more money, then we know that along with the finding that 70% of women tend to be very resilient even in the face of failure, then I have great reason to remain optimistic that we will continue to see women taking smart risks that bring long term rewards.