Women did not evolve against risk-taking and tech startups.

2010 October 4

This is cross-posted at Restructure!

There is a common idea that women are underrepresented in tech startups because we are “nurturing and not risk-taking enough by nature”, an idea often proposed and upvoted in Hacker News discussions. Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, also argues something similar in his defense of Lawrence Summers’ hypothesis that fewer women than men have high innate ability in science. Professor Baumeister argues that men evolved to take risks, and women evolved to play it safe, because we are allegedly descendants of risk-taking men and risk-averse women.

However, there are a few problems with this explanation of why women are underrepresented among tech entrepreneurs. One problem is that top venture capitalist John Doerr consciously and deliberately invests in tech startups run by white men over women and racial minorities, and even encourages other VCs to follow his lead. Even more, it is understood that this is “the way the venture-capital industry operates”. While other industries call this “stereotyping” or “profiling”, VCs call it “pattern recognition”. In other words, there is systemic discrimination in the tech industry based on gender, as well as race and age.

Another problem with the hypothesis of female risk-aversion is that outside of the tech industry, women have been launching new businesses at twice the rate of men for three decades:

The phenomenal growth of women-owned businesses has made headlines for three decades—women consistently have been launching new enterprises at twice the rate of men, and their growth rates of employment and revenue have outpaced the economy.

Yet a third problem with this hypothesis is that a recent study suggests that women are not innately risk-adverse:

Many studies have indeed found that women tend to be more averse to risks and losses than men – they prefer options with higher certainty, and they prefer to avoid losses rather than acquire gains. But according to Priyanka Carr and Claude Steele, this apparent gender difference isn’t the basis for sexual stereotypes, it’s the result of them.


When the volunteers were just told about puzzle-solving exercises, both men and women rejected the same number of lotteries (around three on average). But when stereotypes were brought to mind, the women became more loss-averse – more than men who had the same experience, and more than the other women who weren’t thinking about stereotypes.


Carr and Steele write that “similar gender differences observed in previous studies may have arisen not from innate and stable factors, but from powerful but subtle cues of stereotypes embedded in the environment and task instructions.”

As a commenter pointed out, being reminded of your gender happens all the time in daily life, for women.

The more innocent, scientific motivation behind evolutionary psychology is to take known evolved structures and derive possible gender differences in behaviour, but neurosexists reason in the reverse: they see gender differences and derive that there must exist corresponding evolved structures.

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This post was written by restructure!.

a pseudonymous blogger who blogs at Restructure!

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5 Responses
  1. John Tangney permalink
    October 4, 2010

    Eventually, this sort of argument winds up in the “nature vs. nurture” camp (i.e. whether personality traits are innate or a result of upbringing). While the pendulum is swinging towards “nature” these days, much of the literature talks about genetic predispositions *without* dragging gender into it.

    In other words, I am postulating that risk-aversion is learned, not hard-wired, and certainly not hard-wired to a particular chromosome combo!

    • Leigh Honeywell permalink*
      October 4, 2010

      While the pendulum is swinging towards “nature” these days

      Citation needed. Not from the research I’ve been reading lately, it’s not.

      See for example the new book “Delusions of Gender”.

    • Diana permalink
      October 4, 2010

      There’s no way to reasonably separate “nature” and “nurture.” Not only is it not entirely clear what constitutes the environment to begin with , but that environment will affect gene expression and function which will affect response to environment which will affect gene expression and function etc. Any discussion that asks which of the two is responsible (to whatever degree) for a given trait is making the false assumption that the two can be separated and thus asking the wrong question. Which is why I really hate the type of argument that this post is in response to; it’s like even people in the tech industry think you can just say “science,” “evolution,” and “hormones” like a magic spell to win the argument.

  2. the15th permalink
    October 4, 2010

    I am thrilled that John Doerr actually said what most people are trying to convey when they extol the self-made college dropout geek — usually, the “white, male” is merely implied in phrases like “white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life.”

  3. William Pietri permalink
    October 8, 2010

    Very interesting. I appreciate you posting this.

    I think one point is often missed in this: If evolution has selected for certain traits, so what? To assume that has any moral meaning is the naturalistic fallacy. The question we should be asking: have we eliminated harm to individuals from irrational bias? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say we haven’t. We should!

    Also, I think that might be too short a version of Baumeister’s argument. In particular, his perspective that culture uses men and women differently offers a lot more hope than a purely genetic view of things. Changing genes is still beyond us, but we know how to change culture. E.g., through posts like this.

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