In women, testosterone is linked to risky career choice

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Women with high levels of the hormone testosterone tend to be less risk averse and more likely to pick risky business careers than women with lower testosterone levels, a new study shows. Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago took saliva samples in 2006 from roughly 500 MBA students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Those students were then quizzed on their attitudes toward risk through a computer game. Women who had higher levels of testosterone, as measured from the saliva, tended to make riskier decisions and gamble more in the game. When they graduated from business school several months later, those high-testosterone women also turned out to be more likely than low-testosterone women to choose risky finance careers.

Both men and women naturally produce testosterone, even though it’s most commonly known as a male sex hormone and even though men do generally have higher testosterone than women. Overall, in fact, men in the study were more likely to take risks than the women. But variation in men’s testosterone levels didn’t seem to predict business risk aversion very well — whereas among women, with their lower levels on average, those differences seemed more important. The results suggest that at least some of men’s greater propensity for risk-taking has a biological basis. The findings are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.