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Lehman Sisters? Probably

New research suggests women are just as dangerous as men.

Photograph: Getty Images

Finally, a proper study on the matter: knowing you're a girl won't tell us much about your gambling habits. The study in question comes from a paper released by Bundesbank, and finds gender to be a poor predictor of risky investment. I've always thought this, so to avoid repeating myself, here's something I wrote last year on the subject:

There's a persistent opinion knocking around that blames the financial crisis on one small molecule: testosterone. It is testosterone, apparently, that makes traders go feral as stocks rise, taking bigger and bigger risks until Lehman Brothers happens, or someone falls out of a window.

Women, then, goes the argument, are safer traders - so let's fill trading floors with the ladies. Naturally cautious, milder creatures, they make better investors. If women ruled the world, continues the logic, getting jovial now, lighting its pipe - there would be no stock-market crashes, and probably no wars either.

The argument is, on the face of it, pro-women. After all, it's saying women are good at something; they're good at not being overconfident. But is it feminist? Not really. Broad behavioural generalisations based in biology rarely do women much good. Along with "risk aversion" goes "less competitive" and "less confident". Banking may need these traits but they aren't attractive to employers, and it's damaging to saddle an entire gender with them.

In that article I referred to a study from Stanford, which looked at how women's behaviour towards risk changes as a result of gender stereotyping.

When the experimenters brought up gender stereotypes before the trial, women became overwhelmingly more cautious, whereas men took more risks. When such stereotypes were not used, men and women performed almost equally.

Any differences in financial risk-taking owed a great deal, I suggested, to social conditioning.  Now Bundesbank's paper addresses the matter more directly. The reserachers looked at households in Austria, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, and found that a great predictor of risk-taking behaviour was not in fact gender but age. As subjects got older, their tendencies to make risky choices fell gradually, (the steepest fall was between the late teens and 30s). Gender did not have that much impact - and crucially, varied according to social factors. In Italy, where sexual inequality is seen as higher, gender had more influence on attitude to risk.

Clearly, there is more evidence to be gathered, but it seems to be mounting up.