It’s not news that gender bias is still prevalent in the workplace. But new research suggests that both subtle and overt bias puts women in leadership positions at higher risk of depression than their male counterparts.
The study findings from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, say that ability to hire, fire and influence pay increased symptoms of depression among women–something that didn’t happen with men.
“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,” writes sociologist Tetyana Pudrovska, lead author of the study. “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.”
Pudrovska says gender biases, including negative stereotypes, prejudice and social isolation, are likely the cause: “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,” she writes.
“People like to think they’re less biased than they used to be, but evidence from scientific literature says otherwise,” says Elizabeth Boyd, assistant professor of management and researcher at the Women’s Leadership Center at Kennesaw State University. “People still make stereotype evaluations of women leaders.”
Marianne Cooper, sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, agrees that women face a host of challenges as they advance in their careers and says the results of the UT study should be used to raise awareness within organizations.
“Women leaders are viewed as being less competent than men, they’re evaluated in performance reviews on personality traits while men are evaluated on accomplishments, and they’re interrupted more often during team meetings,” she says. “The day-to-day interactions can become tiring to deal with–it’s like death by 10,000 paper cuts.”
As women advance, and men and women’s lives look more similar, Cooper says cultural concepts should change, but the process is slow. Even well intentioned people can have biases, she says. Companies can help women avoid negative implications by training employees on unconscious biases. Leaders should then take a look at their people processes and identify where unfair practices might be embedded in their own companies.
A common area is the hiring process, says Cooper: “Studies have shown that people will often shift hiring criteria around to match the candidate they want to hire,” she says. “It’s done in ways that confirm to gender stereotypes.”
If a police chief is being hired, for example, whatever strengths the male candidate has–education or experience–often become the most important hiring criteria, says Cooper. “To prevent something like that happening, organizations need to decide on hiring criteria before the interview process,” she says. “Everyone should be held to the same standard.”
Boyd agrees that unconscious bias training is vital in today’s workplace, but says that its effectiveness relies on a final piece: “There was interesting collaborative work between (Wharton School professor) Adam Grant and (Lean In author) Sheryl Sandburg where they found that unconscious bias training works best when organizations highlight areas where it might be happening and tell people to stop doing it,” she says. “It’s the Little Bunny Foo Foo approach.”
Cultivating a diversity climate from within can also help buffer negative attitudes towards women, says Boyd. “Recruit people intentionally from under-represented groups,” she says. “Companies can also create employee resource, or affinity groups. These are all signals to employees that the organization values diversity.”
“Until there is real social change, organizations must stay on top and monitor them,” says Cooper. “When people know that biases happen and know they will be accountable for decisions, research shows they scrutinize their decisions more carefully.”
Simply understanding biases exist can be game changing for women, says Cooper. “When women aren’t aware of the patterns and biases, they can internalize the bias as reflecting a shortcoming in themselves,” she says. “They can think, ‘Maybe I am too aggressive? ‘Maybe I’m not a good communicator?’ Once they understand bias, they experience these things differently and take them less personally. It’s not about them; it’s a larger social dynamic.”
Women also need tools to navigate the issues as they pop up, and working with the bias might be helpful. “It’s annoying to give this advice, but because women are expected to be friendly and nurturing, they might consider blending authoritativeness with approachability,” says Cooper.
Having a mentor can also prepare women for the challenges they will face, says Nathilee Caldeira, staff psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center: “A strong mentor can point women to strategies that work to navigate the inevitable stereotyping and resistance,” she says.
While Boyd believes gender bias exists, she wants to see more research on its impact on depression.
“I wouldn’t make super strong conclusions about the fact that women are going to be more depressed as a result of job authority from this one study,” says Boyd. “It’s the first study ever to have seen these results, and the sample was limited to middle-aged men and women who graduated high school in Wisconsin.”
She cautions women not to read too much into it. “Each person is unique and each occupational path is your own,” she says. “Finding support and mentorship and career advice that will allow you to avoid career pitfalls might lead to a path that results in depression or any other negative outcome.”
Billie Blair, organizational psychologist and CEO of the management consulting firm Change Strategists Inc., is even more skeptical: “The concepts being addressed by the research–or at least the findings that the data supposedly suggest–are psychological precepts,” she says. “Consequently, it would be useful to have professionally trained psychologists conducting the work, or at least to provide advice to the researchers.”
Blair, who has worked with several female leaders at Fortune 500 companies and says she hasn’t noticed signs of depression, thinks the study is potentially damaging. “To be passing the word around that women in management are depressed–that is, mentally ill–doesn’t speak very well for women and their many years of efforts and accomplishments in rising through the ranks. It also could serve the purpose of setting forth the argument that women aren’t competent to serve in management positions. Haven’t we worked for years to make sure that that isn’t the case?”