Women Executives Will Destroy The World, Say Male Economists

In the male-female divide, women are the careful ones, right? The ones more likely than men to buckle their seatbelts, less likely to funnel whiskey at a frat party, less likely to bet the family fortune on a Nigerian email.

Unless, that is, they are executives at a German bank.

In that case, apparently, women suddenly become Evel Knievel on a PCP bender. At least that is the highly suspect implication of a discussion paper presented to the world recently by Germany's Bundesbank (though "not necessarily" reflective of the central bank or its staff).

Why should you care about this report? Because, as the Financial Times noted, its authors claim their findings have "important policy implications," as European policymakers push for more women on boards. By this they appear to mean that the world should think twice. They could wreck the place with all their crazy risk-taking! Or, at the very least, they say that changing the gender composition of a board has "a knock-on effect on corporate outcomes."

After studying the track records of German bank executives from 1994-2010, the three dudes who wrote the paper found that "board changes that result in a higher proportion of female executives...lead to a more risky conduct of business."

In fact, the authors go so far as to suggest that having too many women around (and/or too many young executives and/or too few executives with PhDs) could lead to another financial crisis:

This is particularly important against the background of the recent financial crisis. In fact, anecdotal and emerging empirical evidence suggests that poor governance arrangements in banking have far-reaching consequences for society. ...

While numerous explanations have been invoked for why banks take excessive risk, e.g., executive pay, moral hazard arising from deposit insurance and too-important-to-fail considerations, our research adds a new dimension to this literature by enhancing the understanding of how socioeconomic factors affect collective decision making about risky project choices in corporate finance in general.

The study flies in the face of long-standing conventional wisdom, which holds that women tend to take fewer risks than men. In fact, the study flies in the face of a whole lot of past scientific research showing women take fewer risks than men in a wide variety of areas, including investing, drinking, driving cars, gambling and playing Jeopardy!.

So what explains the discrepancy? The risk-averse (I really have no idea if that is true) Lisa Pollack at FT Alphaville took a look at the paper on Tuesday and found a hole through which you could drunk-drive a souped-up Camaro, sans seatbelt: The authors did not control for the level of experience of the executives they studied.

That changes things a bit, writes Pollack:

If the study had controlled for the amount of experience that executives had, and yet still found that the presence of women was correlated with increasingly risky behaviour by banks, then we’d get a bit more intrigued about the “it’s because of their gender” conclusion. But there wasn’t such a control in place and that’s quite an variable to omit.

The study does take age into account and finds that younger executives tend to take bigger risks (look for a write-up of this finding in the next issue of the scientific journal Duh). But age is not always the same thing as experience, particularly if women have taken time off to raise children, Pollack notes.

In her extensive post, which you really should go and read, and which also breaks down the other findings in the report, Pollack also found two key points about gender that cloud the waters a little more: First, that female executives might self-select, or be selected by, banks that are older and more stable.

And second -- and this is maybe the most important thing of all -- the increased risk-taking the authors think they discovered is "economically marginal." In other words, in one part of the study they say executive gender could have "a knock-on effect on corporate outcomes," but in another place they say the effect is "marginal." So why are we talking about this again?

As Pollack puts it, it's great to get findings like this so we can all think and talk about them. But it goes a little too far to suggest that a study that is this half-baked should have some effect on public policy, or make us think that an influx of women on corporate boards is going to cause another financial crisis. It shouldn't.

And really, while we're all leaping to conclusions, maybe an easier conclusion to reach is that, given the relative dearth of women in positions of importance at private and central banks around the world leading up to the crisis, maybe it was an overabundance of men that wrecked the financial system. It's no less ridiculous an idea.

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