It’s easier when your kids are grown, said Alyson Breathed, 60, a marketing director with a staff of 10. But even after decades of being in management – first in hospitality, now for a public garden – being a woman in authority is stressful.
“We’re still the ones juggling most of the family responsibilities, plus working,” said Breathed, a Fallbrook, Calif., mother of two children and two stepchildren. “After my kids grew up, my mother needed help. Family and work are both insatiable.”
Add pay inequality and the scarcity of women at the top, and it’s no wonder women’s mental health suffers, said Tetyana Pudrovska, sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of “Gender, Job Authority and Depression” in the December 2014 Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
The study said women in authority have more “depressive symptoms” than do men in authority and many more than do women down the ladder. For men, though, the higher the ladder rungs, the fewer depressive symptoms, according to the findings.
Having “authority” included hiring, firing and influencing pay, Pudrovska said. On the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, “depressive symptoms” included feeling tired, lonely, distracted or unable to shake the blues.
The data on 1,302 male and 1,507 female participants is from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which began in 1957. All graduated from Wisconsin high schools, but many have moved out of state since.
“When women have higher incomes and better jobs, they should enjoy better mental health,” Pudrovska said. “Instead, there’s a psychological cost of their authority.” Authority can cause stress, which can trigger depressive symptoms.
Previous studies, according to Pudrovska, overlooked the “gender dimension.” “Male leadership is considered legitimate and expected,” she said. “But when women are leaders, they face resistance and are exposed to overt and subtle gender discrimination and harassment.”
“Gender caveat,” noted Deborah Belle, an associate professor of psychology at Boston University. “The study measured symptoms that mostly affect women,” she said. “Stressed-out men are more likely to get agitated, drink too much or have physical health problems.”
The participants’ age, now 75, meant they were more likely to be in traditionally female fields including education and health care. Younger women have entered male-dominated fields such as finance and law. But Pudrovska said her subsequent research shows “gender stereotypes remain.”
While women outnumber men at many colleges, “society still expects women to take charge of the home and family,” said Dr. Carol Bernstein, associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “And women still have to have the babies.”
“We were the glass-ceiling-breakthrough generation,” Breathed said. “But then, just when we hit our stride, we had to decide whether or not to have kids. To a person, every woman I know who did have kids had to make work sacrifices.”
Gender stereotypes start young, the experts said. Instead of honing leadership skills like risk-taking, young women undermine their own success by questioning and diminishing themselves, wrote Rachel Simmons in “The Curse of the Good Girl.” The result is a “psychological glass ceiling.”
Definitions of “feminine” and “masculine” must change, Pudrovska said. “When women in authority are assertive, dominant, powerful and confident, they’re viewed as unfeminine,” she said. “Men don’t have this conflict; these are ‘masculine’ traits.”
Women excel at compassion and empathy, which complicates their leadership roles, Breathed said. “When men get to positions of authority, they’re like the chest-beating silverback gorillas; they’ve made it!” she said. “But women say, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to fire a woman with two kids.’ ”
How can women dial back the stress-o-meter?
• Choose a female-friendly employer, said Harriet Greenberg, a partner at Friedman LLP, an accounting firm in New York City. Its open-door policy and flex-time option help women cope. If a woman stays home for a few years to chase kids, “she’s welcomed back,” she said.
• Find like-minded women, Bernstein advised. Create a network “of other women who are juggling, too.”
• Subscribe to the philosophy of wabi sabi. “Imperfection is part of life,” Breathed said. “It’s OK if the bed isn’t made.”
• If your job is killing you, jump ship. Breathed left a 60-hour-a-week inflexible job for a 35-hour flexible one that allowed her to be her kids’ Scout leader and soccer coach.
• Teach your daughters to resolve conflicts, take risks, tout their strengths and “check your good girl at the door,” Simmons said.
• Support efforts like the national Thirty Percent Solution, which vows to get more women on boards of directors, where policy decisions are made. “As more women join these old boys’ networks, they’ll become inclusive, not exclusive,” said its spokeswoman, Solange Charas.
Society has come a long way since the 1956 “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” song, Pudrovska said. “But we still need a cultural shift. Awareness is a first step.”