Leadership

Study: Women With Job Authority Are More Depressed

By / Dec 1, 2014 (Creatas/Thinkstock)

A new study reveals an unexpected symptom of leaning in. According to the research, as women advance into positions of power, so does their likelihood of depression.

The view from the top is less rosy for women than men, according to a new study that found that women in positions of authority at work are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression than their male counterparts.

When these women display [assertiveness and confidence], they are judged negatively for being unfeminine. This contributes to chronic stress.

Gender, Job Authority, and Depression” [PDF], scheduled for publication this month in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, reports the results of a survey of 1,300 middle-aged men and 1,500 middle-aged women over the course of several decades. It found that when women gained job authority—the ability to hire, fire, and influence pay—they subsequently exhibited more depressive symptoms, but for men it was the opposite: Less job authority was associated with more depressive symptoms.

“What’s striking is that women with job authority in our study are advantaged in terms of most characteristics that are strong predictors of positive mental health,” Tetyana Pudrovska, the study’s lead author and a University of Texas sociologist, said in a statement. “These women have more education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy than women without job authority. Yet, they have worse mental health than lower-status women.”

Why the conundrum? Pudrovska and her fellow researchers posited that it stems from the consequences of women playing against type, so to speak.

“Women in authority positions are viewed as lacking the assertiveness and confidence of strong leaders,” Pudrovska said. “But when these women display such characteristics, they are judged negatively for being unfeminine. This contributes to chronic stress.”

Pudrovska added that years of research suggest that women in authority positions deal with interpersonal tension, negative social interactions, negative stereotypes, prejudice, and social isolation, as well as resistance from subordinates, colleagues, and superiors.

Meanwhile, men in positions of power are more consistent with social norms. “Male leadership is accepted as normative and legitimate,” Pudrovska said. “This increases men’s power and effectiveness as leaders and diminishes interpersonal conflict.”

The study points out the need to open a discussion about what can be done to lower women’s risk for depression as they advance in the workplace, Pudrovska added. “We need to address gender discrimination, hostility, and prejudice against women leaders to reduce the psychological costs and increase the psychological rewards of higher-status jobs for women.”

Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. More »

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