The Pressure of Being 'Everyone's Ideal'
A new study suggests that the old adage about loneliness at the top may apply more to women business leaders than their male counterparts.
By Kecia Bal
When it comes to depression, it seems no one is immune from its grip. But a new academic report uncovers troublesome news for women who are looking to move into positions of power within an organization.
Women who hold job titles that
come with the authority to hire, fire and influence pay exhibit more depressive
symptoms than women without such authority, according to a new study, "Gender,
Job Authority, and Depression," which appears in the December issue of the Journal
of Health and Social Behavior.
The study looks at more than 1,300 middle-aged men and 1,500 middle-aged women and the change in depressive symptoms between 1993 and 2004 and concludes that, compared to men with authority, women with authority typically exhibit many more depression symptoms. In contrast, men in those positions have the lowest levels of depression of any group.
Negative stereotypes and prejudice makes navigating top-level positions more stressful for women -- and can contribute to chronic stress and the gender gap in mental health implications of workplace authority, says Tetyana Pudrovska, assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study.
"Women in authority positions are evaluated more stringently compared to women without job authority and male co-workers," she says. "Higher-status women are evaluated more stringently compared to male co-workers and are often exposed to overt and subtle gender discrimination and harassment."
The results make sense for a handful of complex reasons, including the fact that there are fewer women executives, says Ruth Malloy, Hay Group's global managing director of leadership and talent in Boston.
"Just being a minority is a stressor," Malloy says.
Another recent study, one that looked at Harvard MBA graduates, highlights some related issues: a gap in career outcomes for men and women and different expectations for women at work.
Malloy says she also performed a
study about 10 years ago of men and women in senior leadership. Among her
findings was that women who were ranked by their superiors as typical rather
than outstanding showed more authoritative leadership traits, which happened to
mirror those of men who were labeled as outstanding by their superiors.
"These are great illustrations of the double-bind [also explored in a Hay Group study on leadership styles]," Malloy says. "If you act like your male role models, you are not seen as favorable, but to get to the senior level you had to show some of the masculine traits. It is really stressful to navigate both sides."
HR can work to debunk myths that assertiveness and overconfidence means being a good leader, Malloy says, by encouraging managers to uphold examples of positive leaders who show traits like empathy and emotional intelligence.
Women also can get caught in what Malloy calls "functional silos," one reason she thinks the gender gap in mid-level management is closing but remains in the executive realm.
To make a change, Malloy says HR needs to look at some practical responses, such as being flexible about workplace assignments that can affect work-life balance or providing support for childcare, as well as reviewing career paths.
"Have people who are looking out for women and minorities," she said. "Be very explicit about it, particularly for high-potential women."
Another factor in the disproportionate incidences of depression may be women's empathetic capacities -- a trait that both makes them ideal for leadership roles but more apt to internalize the consequences of management decisions, says Karen Radtke, a Chicago-based project lead and executive coach with BPI Group's organization transformation and people practice.
"Some studies indicate that
empathy is a more-developed ability in women," she says. "Starting from
this assumption, it would be easy to see that women might have a more difficult
time letting go of upsetting or emotional experiences that cause others pain."
To support women in authority, HR can help create or encourage resource communities, which can be built around educational or professional development networks.
"The other thing everyone asks for is mentoring," she says.
To create more effective mentorship programs, HR needs to step away from those that feel forced -- where the relationships are assigned -- and consider training leaders on the tenets of successful mentorship, she says.
Jenny Dearborn, chief learning officer for the Germany-based software company SAP, says women experience greater pressures than men as they climb corporate ladders.
"The higher you go, the more you're visible and called out as an example," says Dearborn, who works at the company's San Francisco campus. "You're watched, and you can't slip up or make a mistake. You can't be flawed. As a woman, you have to be everyone's ideal of a mother, wife and executive."
HR can help by offering more flexible policies, such as options to telecommute or job share. Avoid giving hiring managers a specific full-time headcount and instead offer a budget, she says, so that the hiring manager has the option of creating part-time posts for women who are ideal candidates but would prefer fewer than full-time hours.
When readers connect study results with the context-a culture in which women are expected to manage a full plate at work and at home with child-rearing and other responsibilities often assumed by the women, such as caring for aging parents-the results are believable, says Rene Street, executive director of the Overland Park, Kan.-based American Business Women's Association.
"While women really want the responsibility, it is sometimes just more on their plate," she says, citing sources such as the Pew Research Center on the challenges modern women face long-term. "Then, when you get the responsibility, there is still a pay inequity."
A network of supportive women can provide an outlet and ideas from other, similar women, she says.
"Employers can encourage women to participate in organizations such as the ABWA, where women are connected with others facing the same challenges," she says. "You have a voice. No one is judging you. You don't have to worry that a complaint will be logged in your work file.
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