The gender-based job stress which women face is because of the workplace climate and not due to their ‘nature’ as commonly thought, a new study suggests.
Social scientists have long known that women working in numerically male-dominated occupations like physics and firefighting report experiencing workplace stress, but men who work in numerically female-dominated occupations like nursing and child care do not, researchers said.
The study by Cate Taylor from Indiana University in the US found that gender-based stress is experienced due to the workplace, and not because of something about the women.
She designed and carried out an experiment that subjected both men and women to the negative social conditions that many women report experiencing in male-dominated occupations.
The result was that men showed the same physiological stress response to the conditions as did women.
“Women are not especially sensitive to negative workplace social conditions. Rather, both women
and men exhibit similar responses to the same types of stressful workplace conditions,” she said.
The study focuses on what Taylor calls “gendered social exclusion,” behaviour that would tend to make “token” women or men feel excluded from a group of mostly opposite-sex coworkers.
For example, men might exclude female co-workers by talking constantly about sports or other stereotypically male interests.
To determine the effect of gendered social exclusion, Taylor placed female study participants in experimental groups with three male confederates and male study participants in groups with three female confederates.
The confederates were trained to make the study participants feel excluded by talking about stereotypically masculine topics (sports, video games and a class in business statistics) or stereotypically feminine topics (shopping, yoga and pilates, and a class in child development) and by subtly excluding the participants from the conversations.
She compared the stress response of these participants with the stress response of participants in groups made up of members of the same sex that did not use conversation to make the participants feel excluded.
In order to measure stress response, at several points during the experiment, Taylor measured levels of the hormone cortisol in the participants’ saliva – a known indicator of physiological stress response.
Cortisol levels rose markedly in participants subjected to gendered exclusion but not in the other participants.
“The results suggest that conditions associated with male-dominated professions are what cause token women to report experiencing high levels of stress in the workplace,” said Taylor.
“If the workplace climate were less unfriendly, we might see more women in these male-dominated occupations, and we might see more parity in pay,” she said.
The study was published in the American Journal of Sociology.