Men v. Women: Who’s Better Under Stress?

by | Nov 24, 2014

As anyone regularly reading my recent posts on negotiation gender studies knows, I'm not a fan of gender wars. Too often the studies that pit men against women are premised on gender stereotypes, draw unsupported conclusions based on genDERalities, "prove" more than the evidence permits or draw upon the experiences of college age participants whose behavior and attitudes cannot be presumed to mirror that of adults in the workplace. Does it matter who performs better under stress?

Not all studies are misleading, however.

Who performs better under stress?

Who's better under stress?

It is indisputable that men and women have been enculturated to behave differently from one another. And women it seems are better under stress than their male counterparts.

Nor is there any dispute that men and women are subjected to differing sets of judgments in the workplace. When men, for instance, are observed behaving collaboratively in a group, observers tend to judge their leadership skills as lacking. When women, on the other hand, are observed behaving directively in a group, observers tend to judge their leadership skills as lacking.

Not (Yet) a Meritocracy

Many people, including many of those who will respond negatively to this post, are angered by any messenger who reminds us that the workplace is not (yet) a meritocracy, that men and women are judged by different standards, that men and women often behave differently from one another in similar ways, that men and women can and do have the ability to change their behavior for the purpose of being more efficient and effective workplace actors, and that they face different, though often equally difficult, workplace challenges.

Frankly, I'm pleased that so many people are angered by suggestions that women should tailor their personalities to meet the expectations of those who would stereotype us and that others grow irritable when told men and women do behave differently in different circumstances, sometimes more and sometimes less effectively. It means we're all trying to drop our biases and desirous of living in a world in which we're not judged by the accidents of our birth.

All that said, the studies just keep on coming.

Do Women Tend to Perform Better Under Stress?

Because my consulting and training business caters primarily to the workplace needs of women, I am constantly on the lookout for information that will help them earn their true market value as if gender were not a limitation. Today, I bring you news from the Harvard Program on Negotiation that women's responses to stress in a workplace environment are often better than men's.

Let's take a look at the study.

According to Women and Negotiation: Risk, Stress and the "Glass Cliff,"researchers have recently learned that men and women tend to "react differently when making risky decisions under stress." I'll let Harvard take it from here.

Specifically, stressed-out men tend to make riskier decisions than stressed-out women. In one study, cognitive neuroscientist Stephanie D. Preston of the University of Michigan and her colleagues had participants play a gambling game during a 20-minute waiting period before a speech they were told they would have to give (a stress-inducing prospect).

At first, both men and women had difficulty making good decisions in the game. As the stressful speech drew near, however, women started making better decisions, while men began risking too much for a slim hope of a big payoff. Women were also more aware than men of the relative riskiness of their behavior.

This research adds to a long list of other studies attempting to prove that women are risk-averse and men are risk-courting. Some studies suggest that this is a bad thing for women as entrepreneurs and investors because the marketplace requires us to accept some risk to move the commercial ball down the field toward victory. Others, like this one, suggest that risk aversion is a good thing for women in the workplace because our heads remain more clear when we're facing stress-inducing challenges.

My point?

Not only can men and women not be defined as better or worse than their generic gender opposites in business and the professions, but those inclined to be quiet and self-effacing will not necessarily fail to achieve when pitted against those inclined to self-confidence, braggadocio and risk courting behaviors.

The workplace needs all of us in all our dimension, texture, idiosyncracies, ambiguities and inherently contradictory behaviors. Just as a tree outside your window is not a tree, nor even a pine, but a Jack, a Pinyon, a Ponderosa, or a Bristlecone, the man or woman sitting in your chair - that's you! - is not a gender.

There is no such thing.

There is only Dawn or Jose, Denise or Jess, Hector or Brian or Loraine. Born of parents who braved and survived the Great Depression of the '30s, the Recession of the aughts, or the culture wars of the 1960s. Descendants of immigrants, refugees, slaves. Survivors of holocausts from Germany to Darfur, Armenia to Cambodia, El Salvador to wherever ISIS establishes a new base of operations.

We are more different one from the other - John from Greg or Rita from Anne - than we are men to women, Romanian to French, GenY to Boomer. We nevertheless have gender tendencies, primarily I'd argue, based on the way we've been presumed and then culturally policed to behave. Understanding these tendencies should add to our knowledge and increase our multi-cultural competency, not confirm our belief that a generic man or stereotypic woman, is better for any particular job that human beings in all our glorious particularity can and will do.

Anyone who comes back for a second time to this post will see that I changed the headline to make the article look like a contest between men and women. My own little experiment about what "sells" the gender wars. I'm assuming what sells is competition. Let's see!


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Victoria Pynchon Contributor
is an author, keynote speaker, and consultant whose work is dedicated to closing the wage, income and leadership gap for women. With her business partner, coach and adult learning specialist Lisa Gates, Victoria developed a transformational negotiation training program designed to take advantage of women’s known negotiation strengths and to avoid the sand traps of their weaknesses. Victoria has trained executives, managers and professionals at Intel Corporation, Qwest Communications, Warner Brothers Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, dozens of major international law firms, the USC and Pepperdine Schools of Law, the Anderson School of Management at UCLA and a diverse array of women’s organizations. The work of She Negotiates has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, the New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and dozens of smaller news outlets.
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