Women are not necessarily risk-averse at the workplace, but they calculate it more judiciously and organisations are better for it, according to some of India’s most influential business leaders who were participants in a debate at Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in business summit held in Mumbai on November 8. Women may take comparatively smaller risks at the workplace, but much bigger ones socially and emotionally when they step out of the house to work in a society where they don’t find equal opportunities, equal pay, or familial support to pursue a career.

“Women take risks every day of their lives when they walk out of the house in order to work, they take risks at home, they are signing on much more risk than a man ever has to,” said Arundhati Bhattacharya, independent director at Reliance Industries, Wipro, CRISIL, Piramal Enterprises, and SWIFT India. The former State Bank of India chairman was on the team arguing against the topic of the debate: Women take fewer risks than men at the workplace.

Women leaders also believe that their risk-taking abilities are determined by their socialisation.

“Isn’t our culture, isn’t our social environment, isn’t our socialisation, isn’t our very patriarchal setup of our society today, one that basically allows mentally men to have those muscles out there, and for women to think twice and say is it (risks) really worth it,” said Zia Mody, co-founder, AZB & Partners, who was speaking for the motion. Mody added that the question should not be whether women take risks, but what is the level and comparative risk-taking ability of women in the workplace.

The other important aspect which was talked about was the definition of risk itself. Metropolis Healthcare promoter and managing director Ameera Shah said risk is usually gauged on a scale defined by men, and it needs to be re-examined.

“Women operate differently form men. Men are thrill seekers, women are more deliberate. Women are more thoughtful. We are not only thinking of the outcomes of what we are doing, or the outcome of our risk, we are actually thinking about how it effects everybody around us in the room. Women are more deliberate, more thoughtful,” Shah said.

When women do take risks, she says, the chances of success are much higher because there is a lot more planning, detailing, and a solid back-up plan.

In 2017, a study led by the by the University of Exeter had concluded that women can be as risky or riskier than men when the conventional macho measures of daring are replaced by less stereotypical criteria.

Rekha M. Menon, chairman and senior MD, Accenture in India, shared a similar viewpoint. Menon said risk-taking has come to be defined narrowly. The corporate rhetoric of risk-taking comprises legendary stories of huge dividends from risky entrepreneurial gambles. She says these are often used to position risk as a very coveted virtue.

“This narrow definition overlooks all the failed ventures and the reputation issues and the huge costs, which are not talked about, which are part of the same history of risk-taking, which actually exposes the organisation to a lot of danger,” she said. Menon was debating for the motion.

Ameera Shah, MD, Metropolis Healthcare, and Revathi Roy, founder and CEO, Hey Deedee.
Ameera Shah, MD, Metropolis Healthcare, and Revathi Roy, founder and CEO, Hey Deedee.
Image : Sanjay Rawat.

She also noted that women leaders are often brought in for their judicious approach to decision-making and risk during times of crisis. “When firms go into high-risk situations, when organisations get to the cliff, they get a woman leader to solve the problem, and take a more judicious, less-risky approach.” She cited the example of Mary Barra, who was made CEO of GM when the automaker was in trouble after several models exhibited problems with their ignition switches. She also spoke about Christine Lagarde, who was named managing director of the International Monetary Fund during the height of the European sovereign debt crisis.

The role of risk is also overstated, and it is not a necessity for success, is another key insight that came out of the debate. Anupriya Acharya, CEO, Publicis Media India, said that the financial crisis of 2008-09 has shown that too much risk is not always a good thing. By taking excessive risk, companies are not just exposing themselves, but their shareholders and the country to dangerous outcomes as well, as was evident from the Lehman crisis which sent the global economy into a tailspin.

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