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Gender, Work, Stress, and Health

From a health perspective, the academy and women would seem to be a bad mix.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that academic women experience more health problems than men. Thinking back to my graduate school days I recall the bizarre range of illnesses that my female colleagues and I suffered from: strange rashes, neck and back problems, rheumatoid arthritis, breast infections, asthma, lupus ... and that's just skimming my memory's surface. Even now, as a faculty member, I notice that many of the women I work with suffer from a variety of acute and chronic conditions, ranging from allergies and chronic colds to cancer. I haven't come across statistical evidence, but it certainly seems that academic women suffer from more health problems than men. Why? One reason, perhaps, is stress.

Much has been written about the obstacles to success that professional women face, including work-family conflict, stress, and stress-related health problems. Although not limited to academic careers, a new volume titled Gender, Work Stress, and Health (referred to from here on as GWSH), edited by Debra L. Nelson and Ronald J. Burke, sheds some more light on the issue.

What Stresses Do Academic Women Face?

According to GWSH, the literature shows few differences in the ways that males and females respond to acute stressors. However, women tend to experience more chronic stressors, like these, which are pervasive in academia:

  • The Glass Ceiling. Women are rare in upper levels of academia, as evidenced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study of the status of women in science and several other studies from Johns Hopkins to Berkeley. Women suffer biases in recruiting, selection, and promotion efforts; they receive fewer professional development opportunities (e.g., mentoring and networking); and they face negative bias in evaluations by both students and colleagues.

  • Workload and Role Overload. Academic jobs are oversized, created in a time when the academy was populated with men whose wives nurtured their careers, raised their children, and managed their homes. Despite the passage of time and the infiltration of women into the academy, the nature of academic and domestic work hasn't changed. Regardless of whether they hold a career, women tend to shoulder a greater proportion of domestic work than do men, and they typically balance multiple conflicting roles--professional, Mommy, house worker, etc. When domestic work is coupled to a busy professional life, the workload is burdensome, and it increases significantly with each child. Academic careers pose tripartite demands of research, teaching, and service; at many institutions--perhaps the majority--professors find that campus time is taken up mostly by the latter two, leaving research and writing for evenings and weekends---time that women need to keep up their homes and raise their families. Many (especially younger, untenured) women in the academy chronically face an awful choice: to do the research they must do to keep their jobs, or take care of essential domestic obligations.

  • Maternal Wall. Academic women often find that their career opportunities are limited after having children. Colleagues may assume that they have "sold out" and are no longer committed to their careers--which may influence tenure, promotion, and other opportunities for advancement (like appointment to chairs, deanships, and high-profile committees). Even women who attempt to circumvent the maternal wall by having children during graduate school often are penalized. Consider my colleague who planned to give birth during the dissertation-phase of graduate school. Upon informing her advisor of her pregnancy, he replied, "I'm so sorry," and was unable to find the time to meet or read her dissertation drafts until well after she gave birth.

  • Tokenism. The paucity of women in Research I institutions, and within most university science departments, leads the few who infiltrate the system to be viewed by some as tokens. The social psychology literature informs us that tokenism is associated with exclusion from informal networks, stereotyping, discrimination, and prejudice. Recent data from MIT, reported in the HHMI Bulletin, suggest that women scientists experience marginalization and are excluded from high-level decision-making.

  • Inappropriate Behavior and Sexual Harassment. Women in nontraditional fields are especially prone to experiencing a continuum of harassing behaviors, from behaviors likely to be seen as harmless by male colleagues, like mild flirtation and sexual jokes, to more obvious acts like inappropriate touching and repeated requests for dates or other favors.

Each of these stressors is linked to increased susceptibility to several kinds of distress, including burnout, lower levels of perceived well-being, and poor satisfaction with job and life. While men are more likely to suffer serious chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and hypertension, as a result of stress, women tend to suffer from a much wider variety of psychological and physical complaints. Women report more overall distress than men do and tend to experience higher levels of psychophysiological symptoms in response to stress--headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, anxiety, hostility, dizziness, nausea, pounding heart, lack of motivation, and various acute and chronic illnesses. Research indicates that parental work stress is associated with higher levels of parent-child conflict--which suggests that it isn't just women, but also their children, who are negatively affected by work stress. Stressors are interactive and cumulative: The more stressors one experiences, the greater the likelihood of stress-related health problems.

Coping With Work-Related Stress

Stress is endemic to academia; however, adverse health consequences are not inevitable. Why? Effects of stress on health are moderated by a variety of other factors, such as:

  • Coping style. Problem-focused coping (take-charge strategies that deal with the problem at hand or eliminate the stressors through problem solving) often enhances feelings of control and reduces stress and its adverse consequences, assuming that the situation can be changed. Positive forms of emotion-focused coping deal with the emotional reactions one has to the stressful event (e.g., reinterpreting the event in a positive light). When a situation is unchangeable, emotion-focused coping may lead to healthier adaptation. Negative forms of emotion-focused coping, such as denial, self-blame, and ruminative coping (repeatedly thinking about the problem without trying to change it), are associated with maladaptive health outcomes. While some research suggests that men are more likely to use problem-focused coping strategies and women emotion-focused strategies, when education and career are accounted for gender differences in coping style disappear.

  • Social support. A social-support network is associated with reduced perceived work-home conflict, increased job and life satisfaction, enhanced perceptions of control, and fewer stress-related health problems. Women are more likely to seek social support than men and tend to demonstrate greater health benefits from social support.

  • Personality. Personality characteristics, such as overall emotionality and moodiness, influence how we react to stressors. For example, those with a poor sense of self-efficacy tend to doubt themselves, leading to reductions in effort and simply giving up when times get hard. Theory and research suggest that many professional women suffer from "imposter syndrome" in which they believe they are intellectual frauds, consider themselves less competent than they really are, don't internalize their successes, and fear being "found out." The lowered levels of self-efficacy inherent in the imposter phenomenon make afflicted women more vulnerable to the negative health effects of stress.

We've seen that women are more prone to stress-related health problems simply because they encounter a multitude of stressors in both work and home environments. Couple the stressors with limited social support--most women scientists have few such resources--and the imposter phenomenon, and it's easy to see why academic women often are an unhealthy lot. The academy presents women scientists with a variety of obstacles, barriers, and stresses. But these challenges don't have to harm your health.

What Can We Do?

Although GWSH presents reduced workload (or "job sharing" for academic positions) as a potential solution, job sharing and other part-time arrangements are unrealistic for many academic women and are associated with low wages, reduced benefits, few actual reductions in workload, and few opportunities for advancement. Nevertheless, the research on gender differences in work stress and health suggests a variety of solutions:

  • Social Support. Given the benefits associated with social support, this is an essential avenue for assisting academic women in managing their lives. Formal sources of support such as mentoring programs, as well as informal support groups like brown-bag lunch groups and e-mail discussion lists, can provide academic women with peers with whom they can vent, seek assistance, and commiserate, easing perceptions of isolation.

  • Coping Style. This is an individualized, personal solution. Reevaluate your coping style, and try to use problem-focused and positive emotion-focused strategies. It's a challenge, but adjusting your outlook will change how you react to stressors and help prevent them from harming your health. The resources listed at the end of the article will help you gain perspective and develop healthy academic habits.

  • Seek Assistance With Domestic Work. Lighten your domestic load by hiring someone to do the housecleaning, using a laundry service, or simply recognizing that sanity is more important than a spotless house. Live with additional clutter and ask your partner to lend a hand. If you can do it without raising your stress level further, expect your partner to take on an equal (or more) share of domestic duties.

  • Make Time for You. It sounds like a cliché, and an unrealistic one at that--how can you find time for yourself when juggling a 60-hour workweek and all the personal demands on your time? Believe it or not, 20 minutes a day of solitude will make a lot of difference in stress relief and mental balance. Read a non-work-related book, write in a journal, complete a crossword, or just stare out the window. Exercise several times each week to release stress and increase your resistance to stress and stress-related health problems.

  • Support Family-Friendly University Policies. Perceptions of control and flexibility are essential to managing stress in healthful ways. The American Association of University Professors' (AAUP's) Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work makes several recommendations to enhance flexibility and control in managing competing work-family demands. AAUP recommends that new parents have the option to stop the tenure clock for 1 year or, more importantly, engage in active service with modified duties (i.e., reduced teaching load, enabling new parents to keep up with their research as they determine how to best juggle their new responsibilities). Lobby your university to adopt these principles and to develop campus-based child-care centers to enable faculty to coordinate their work-home lives.

Additional Resources

R. Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members (Allyn & Bacon, 2000)

A. Ellis and M. Powers, A Guide to Rational Living (Wilshire Book Co., 1998)

American Medical Women's Association: How Stress Affects the Body

Howard Hughes Medical Institute--Accomplished Women

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