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Why Are Women Still Uncomfortable Taking Risks at Work?

A new study looks at why women are hesitant to make a big professional leap.
By: | March 18, 2019 • 2 min read

Risk-taking plays an important role in helping women advance in their careers—and they know it. According to the 2019 KPMG Women’s Leadership Study: Risk, Resilience, Reward, 55 percent of more than 2,000 college-educated women currently working full-time in the white-collar workforce believe people who take career risks progress more quickly, achieve personal development, and build increased confidence and respect among colleagues.

While they clearly recognize the value of risk-taking, less than half (43 percent) say they are open to taking the kinds of risks typically associated with career advancement. Notably, that figure gets worse as women spend more time in the workplace. Just 37 percent of women with more than 15 years of experience say they are open to taking big risks, compared to 45 percent of women with less than five years of experience. While it may be tempting to brand that a generational difference, KPMG’s Chief Diversity Officer Michele Meyer-Shipp says another factor is to blame.

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“As we get [further along] in our careers, we have more to lose,” Meyer-Shipp says. “We’ve navigated our careers. We’re in a safe space. We’re concerned about planning for retirement and protecting our nest eggs. As far as taking a risk opportunity, we would be a little more hesitant.”

The one exception is women of color, with 57 percent saying they are open to taking big risks to further their careers, compared to 38 percent of white women. Meyer-Shipp says that’s because minority women found it necessary to “lean into the risk and pursue the risk while navigating corporate America from day one.”

One of the greatest barriers is women’s concern with how others perceive them. Respondents expressed concern over looking like they don’t know as much as they should, being ignored or not taken seriously, failing something they try, or looking like they are doing something or saying something that “isn’t smart.” Consequently, few women are comfortable talking about their accomplishments, raising their personal external visibility, or asking for a higher salary.

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The solution lies in women finding ways to “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” says Meyer-Shipp. That’s not to suggest they should be left to their own devices. The organization—and HR in particular—has a definite role to play in encouraging women to engage in more risk-taking at work. According to the KPMG study, more training opportunities, mentorships, managers who support risk-taking and flexibility to take a risk “without it being all-consuming” were cited as actions companies could take to make women more confident taking risks.

“For various reasons, women still are to a certain extent hesitant to take risks, so we need to let them know that we want them to raise their hands, to grow in their careers, to succeed and grow, and we want to provide them with the platforms that we need,” says Meyer-Shipp. “For an HR professional, it’s an a-ha! moment that they need to talk to their women and figure out what they can do to help them grow.”

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter, covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]

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