Nav: Home

Workplace climate, not women's 'nature,' responsible for gender-based job stress

July 12, 2016

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- 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.

But why? Is it something about women or something about the workplace? A study by an Indiana University sociologist suggests it's the latter.

Cate Taylor, assistant professor of sociology and gender studies at IU Bloomington, 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: Men showed the same physiological stress response to the conditions as did women.

"Women are not especially sensitive to negative workplace social conditions," Taylor said. "Rather, both women and men exhibit similar responses to the same types of stressful workplace conditions."

The article, "'Relational by Nature?' Men and Women Do Not Differ in Physiological Response to Social Stressors Faced by Token Women," appears in the July 2016 issue of the American Journal of Sociology and is now available online.

The study focuses on what Taylor calls "gendered social exclusion," behavior 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.

It addresses the question of whether, as some observers have suggested, women are simply more sensitive to such exclusion: if they are "relational by nature" and respond more strongly than men to being shut out of social interaction in the workplace.

Taylor recruited undergraduate research assistants, called "confederates," and trained them extensively to manage peer-to-peer conversations in a laboratory setting. Study participants were also undergraduates recruited on a university campus.

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 cortisol response was robust, and it was statistically significant," Taylor said. And it was just as strong in men who were subjected to gendered exclusion as in women who were subjected to gendered social exclusion.

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, Taylor said. The answer isn't to "fix" the women by teaching them to be less sensitive, because when women and men are exposed to the exact same social conditions, they actually have the same stress response. A better answer might be to address the workplace social exclusion faced by minorities in their occupations.

And the findings matter, Taylor said. For one thing, exposure to chronic physiological stress response, indicated by cortisol response, has been found to be associated with negative health effects, including heart disease, digestive problems, weight gain and depression.

For another, both stress and exclusion from important workplace social networks and mentorship may be significant factors in preventing women from getting or keeping jobs in male-dominated occupations. Male-dominated occupations, on average, have higher pay and prestige and better working conditions than mixed-sex or female-dominated occupations. Taylor said the under-representation of women in male-dominated occupations is a significant factor behind the gender wage gap. On average, women earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men.

"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. "That would be good for women and good for families."
-end-


Indiana University

Related Stress Articles:

Stress in the powerhouse of the cell
University of Freiburg researchers discover a new principle -- how cells protect themselves from mitochondrial defects.
Measuring stress around cells
Tissues and organs in the human body are shaped through forces generated by cells, that push and pull, to ''sculpt'' biological structures.
Cellular stress at the movies
For the first time, biological imaging experts have used a custom fluorescence microscope and a novel antibody tagging tool to watch living cells undergoing stress.
Maternal stress at conception linked to children's stress response at age 11
A new study published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease finds that mothers' stress levels at the moment they conceive their children are linked to the way children respond to life challenges at age 11.
A new way to see stress -- using supercomputers
Supercomputer simulations show that at the atomic level, material stress doesn't behave symmetrically.
Beware of evening stress
Stressful events in the evening release less of the body's stress hormones than those that happen in the morning, suggesting possible vulnerability to stress in the evening.
How plants cope with stress
With climate change comes drought, and with drought comes higher salt concentrations in the soil.
Gene which decreases risk of social network-related stress, increases finance-related stress risk
Researchers have discovered that the same gene which increases your risk of depression following financial stress as you grow older also reduces your chance of depression associated with friendship and relationships stresses when young- your social network.
Innate stress
A team of researchers from the Higher School of Economics and the RAS Vavilov Institute of General Genetics has been able to statistically monitor the impact of the monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) on the subjective evaluation of well-being among men.
Is a stress shot on the horizon?
Rats immunized weekly for three weeks with beneficial bacteria showed increased levels of anti-inflammatory proteins in the brain, more resilience to the physical effects of stress, and less anxiety-like behavior.
More Stress News and Stress Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.