Mountain biker Shauna Stephenson asks, "Are women pre-disposed to be more risk averse than male adventurers?" The answer: maybe, but we think there are a lot of other factors at play.
According to Stephenson, when men face risky situations, they tend to produce adrenaline, which excites them. Women's bodies are more likely to produce acetylcholine, which, says Women's Wilderness Institute leader Jody Radtke, "makes you want to vomit." Stephenson writes,
Because women don't have the same positive chemical reward, they tend to be less pumped about confronting stressful situations. This leads them to rely on decision-making. Essentially, they want the whole picture before they go diving in.
There may be other factors at play, though, besides acetylcholine. Writing about Stephenson's piece, Lane Wallace says that women's alleged tendency towards decision-making "acts as a bit more of a check and balance to some of the other factors that go into the decision to take on risk … including group environment and pressure." Men and boys frequently find themselves in group environments where they are pressured to take risks, whether it's doing a keg stand or jumping over a river on a mountain bike. Stephenson talks about worrying that she's "a wimp," but prohibitions against wimpiness are much stronger for men, and accolades for risk-taking much greater.
Conversely, women are constantly told to be careful and to avoid risk. Women's magazines often read like risk-aversion manuals, with their lists of diseases you didn't know you had, habits you didn't know could kill you, and ways to secretly find out if your boyfriend is going to dump you, so you can dump him first and find someone who will protect you from the terrors of singlehood. Even Glamour's "Hey, it's OK!" section only gives women a pass do things like naked housework — nothing actually risky.
So while it's flattering to be told that women are expert decision-makers who consider all factors before taking a leap, it's difficult to separate the biological basis of this from intense social pressures. And there's a dark side to women's risk-aversion: the idea that men can afford to play around and take chances in life, while women have to protect themselves at every turn. Risk-taking shouldn't always be privileged — after all, the wimp/daredevil dichotomy isn't exactly great for men either — but we'd still like to see a world where women could jump a river or travel to a remote place or have a fucking beer from time to time, without having to be told "it's OK."