Conventional wisdom suggests that people with greater authority at work should be mentally and physically healthier than those without it. They can afford to take care of themselves and aren’t tied to the daily (unhealthy) grind. But a new study, to be published in the December issue of Journal of Health and Social Behavior, suggests that men and women react differently to the pressures of a high-powered career.
The study examined 1,300 middle-aged men and 1,500 middle-aged women from Wisconsin over a period of several decades, looking at responses to a survey gathered when the respondents were 54 and 65 years old. Women with higher levels of job authority (defined as control over one’s work, the ability to hire and fire others, and control their pay) showed more depressive symptoms than women without job authority. With men, the opposite was true: Lower levels of authority correlated with higher levels of depressive symptoms.
This finding makes sense when you consider the cultural expectations of men and women in the workplace, explained Tetyana Pudrovska, the study’s lead author. She referenced the well-known idea of the “double-bind” for women in leadership positions: They are expected to be friendly and nurturing, while also assuming the assertiveness and competitiveness of a leader. Too much friendliness can make a female leader seem less competent for authority, but too much assertiveness is considered unfeminine.
Pudrovska pointed to Jill Abramson as a perfect example of the double-bind’s adverse effect. “She was tough, and pushy, and had ... confidence.” But, she added, having all that “doesn’t mean you can write your own ticket.” Women are much more likely than men to face pushback and encounter issues of legitimacy as a result of gender discrimination. “The cultural meaning of job authority is different for men and women,” says Pudrovska. “Men’s authority is consistent with their expected status.”
Pudrovska was quick to caution against the conclusion that authority is unhealthy for women. “It’s very important, given the data we have now, to increase the number of women in authority and leadership positions,” said Pudrovska. “But this is not an end in itself.” She explained that it’s crucial to pay attention to what happens to women after they are promoted to high-level positions. “People don’t think about what happens after you lean in.”