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global exchange

Arpad Benedek

If you're a young, ambitious woman in the corporate world, you may want to stop reading.

A recent study released by the German central bank found that risk taking within the banking industry increases with more women on an executive board. The same goes for younger executives. In contrast, men who are graying at the temples and executives with Ph.D. degrees reduce the level of risk.

So why do more women add up to greater risk? The theory is that women have less experience in the top leadership positions at a company. The study also mentions that the addition of a member from a different background, i.e. not one of the boys, leads to greater diversity and can in turn boost conflict and hold back decision making.

"Board changes that result in a higher proportion of female executives also lead to a more risky conduct of business," according to the authors of the recently released study: Allen Berger, a professor of banking and finance at the University of South Carolina; Thomas Kick, an employee at the German central bank; and Klaus Schaeck, professor of empirical banking at Bangor University.

The controversial study balks the conventional wisdom that women tend to be more careful when it comes to taking financial risks, a viewpoint the authors acknowledge in their paper citing previous studies. It comes at a time when the European Union is considering introducing quotas to boost the number of women represented at the board level. Women account for just one out of seven board seats in Europe's biggest companies, the EU said last month.

In their paper, the authors addressed this push to "break the glass ceiling."

"The political movement towards gender quotas is based on the desire to establish equality on the top management team level," the study said. "The effects of this legislation, however, are less discussed."

The authors set out to probe how the age, gender and education levels of executive teams impact risk taking in the banking industry. To do so, they pored over vast amounts of data from the German central bank with regard to executives at the country's banks between 1994 and 2010. The authors say their study is the first to examine the role of the top female executives in the banking industry whereas others focused on loan officers or fund managers. While risk goes up with more women on the executive board, the impact is "economically marginal," according to the study.

(The German central bank said on the first page of the study that the paper doesn't "necessarily" reflect its views.)

They believe their work provides more insight into governance in the banking industry, which has come under closer scrutiny following the risky behaviour that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

"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 choice in corporate finance in general," the authors wrote in the study.

It's just one opinion. Others, like popular writer Michael Lewis, have also spoken out about how to prevent another fiasco in the banking industry. His solution? He told the London School of Economics that he would put 50 per cent of women in risk positions in banks, The Observer reported last year.