It’s fashionable these days to cheer women on as they “lean in” and climb the management ladder, à la Sheryl Sandberg. But new research based on historical data suggests that for women in a position to hire, fire, and determine pay, success may come at a cost–to their happiness.
In a study to be published next month in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, titled “Gender, Job Authority, and Depression,” sociologist Tetyana Pudrovska reports that mid-career women who served in leadership roles from 1993 to 2004 were more likely than men in the equivalent roles to suffer from chronic stress and symptoms of depression. Pudrovska suggests that our conflicting expectations of women–be confident, but not aggressive; be friendly, but not girly–were at the root of their stress and worry.
“There are these cultural and societal forces that may undermine women’s leadership,” she says, noting past research on the “double-bind” that affects many women managers.
For Pudrovska, the fact that women in management roles are more likely to be well-educated and high-earning, factors that correlate with positive mental health, makes the new findings particularly striking.
“It’s contrary to what we would expect,” she says. “They’re more socially advantaged than women without job authority. They should have lower depression.”
Nonetheless, there is cause for some optimism. Pudrovska and co-author Amelia Karraker relied on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a decades-long survey of 1,300 white men and 1,500 white women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Their analysis focuses on interviews conducted in 1993 and 2004, when the study participants were middle-aged. For younger generations of women leaders, circa 2014, shifting societal expectations may be working to their advantage.
“Now women’s leadership is more respected,” she says. “If we want to understand what’s happening in the workplace we need to look at younger cohorts.” In the months to come she plans to study more recent data sets, as well as sets that include women and men with diverse racial backgrounds.
“We want women to flourish,” she says. And by understanding the obstacles that stand in their way, perhaps companies can find better ways to do just that.