Significant Results

Using research findings to tell a more positive story.

Women Are Braver Than Men

New science suggests we need to rethink courage.

Not long ago, as I began writing the book The Courage Quotient, I decided to offer a cash prize for courage. I am not the first person to think of this idea. Most military forces offer medals for valor on the battlefield. There are also many private foundations who offer awards for bravery. Perhaps the best known of these is the Carnegie Medal, offered to citizens who save the lives of others. My own prize was small in comparison but—still—I was interested in hearing all the stories of courage and wanting to make some modest contribution to this worthwhile way of being in the world. 

I offered the prize and I sat back and waited for the nominations to come in. I was immediately struck by the fact that all the people nominated by others were women. I had expected people to assume that courage was a stereotypically masculine trait but time and again I heard of the bravery of women keeping their spirits high while battling cancer and other chronic illnesses, of women in executive positions in male dominated industries and of women sticking up for their children. In fact, the winner of my courage cash prize was a woman who jumped off a cliff to save a friend drowning in a river below, breaking her own bones in the process. 

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My experiences with this small courage award led me to question whether I was missing something where the heroism of women is concerned. A little peak at the research on the topic confirms that women are far braver than stereotypes of male courage might lead us to believe. If you understand that courage is—essentially—deciding to act even when there is fear, a percieved threat and the outcomes of your actions are uncertain then it makes sense that bravery isn't just about rushing into burning buildings and other physical feats of daring-do. Bravery can include moving to a new town, switching careers, opening a business, sticking up for an underdog, deciding to have children and many other everyday experiences. When framed in this light it suddenly seems possible that bravery is actually a sterotypically feminine concern.

Researchers Selwyn Becker and Alice Eagley examined this assumption empirically. They decided to assess the rates of heroism among men and women related to a wide variety of activities. These included helping to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, joining the Peace Corps, donating a kidney, volunteering for overseas service with Doctors of the World, and winning Carnegie Medals. In all but the last category women disproprtionately outnumbered men. Women were found to donate about 60% of all kidneys despite the fact that they only make up about 51% of the population. Women also were majority recipients of the Righteous Among Nations award for people who leant a hand during the Holocaust, and disproportionally well-represented among volunteer organizations.

Hopefully, research such as that conducted by Becker and Eagley shed light on the fact that courage is not simply the domain of men. Each day women stand up for their friends and co-workers, their children and themselves. They change careers, start families, advocate for others, volunteer in dangerous situations, and travel the world. Courage is as feminine as it gets.

 

Robert Biswas-Diener is a happiness researcher and adventurer.

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