Women who have power at work are at risk of poorer mental health than women further down the career ladder, a study has found. Researchers found that while men tend to feel better the more authority they have, the reverse is often true for women.
‘Women with job authority – the ability to hire, fire and influence pay – have significantly more symptoms of depression than women without this power,’ said Tetyana Pudrovska, of the University of Texas, who carried out the study.
‘In contrast, men with job authority have fewer symptoms of depression than men without such power.
‘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,’ she added. ‘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.’
The researchers studied 2,800 middle-aged men and women who were part of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey – a sample of people who have been followed since they graduated from a U.S. high school in 1957. They explored the effect of job authority in 1993 (at age 54) on the change in depressive symptoms between then and 2004 (age 65).
Prof Pudrovska said the reason a woman with authority may be negatively impacted is that she can encounter ‘resistance’ from colleagues, who may judge her for being ‘unfeminine’. ‘Years of social science research suggests that women in authority positions deal with interpersonal tension, negative social interactions, negative stereotypes, prejudice, social isolation, as well as resistance from subordinates, colleagues and superiors,’ she said.
‘Women in authority positions are viewed as lacking the assertiveness and confidence of strong leaders. ‘But when these women display such characteristics, they are judged negatively for being unfeminine. This contributes to chronic stress.’
Men, on the other hand, generally do not have to overcome the resistance and negative stereotypes that women often face, said Prof Pudrovska. ‘Men in positions of authority are consistent with the expected status beliefs, and male leadership is accepted as normative and legitimate,’ she said. ‘This increases men’s power and effectiveness as leaders and diminishes interpersonal conflict.
‘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.’
The study was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.