About two weeks ago a flurry of articles popped up regarding a new study showing evidence of increased depression in women holding positions of authority.  I found this idea intriguing but most of the news articles were short and vague (see USA TodayWashington PostBBC NewsCNN.)  To learn more, I looked up the original article:

Pudrovska, T. & Karraker, A. (2014). Gender, Job Authority, and Depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 55 (4): 424-441  (Full digital copy of the article available here.)

Here is a brief summary:

The Research Issue: We know very little about how job authority (defined here as control over others’ work– hiring, firing, influencing pay) impacts different groups of workers.  This is particularly true regarding women vs. men.

The Theoretical Foundation: Having more job authority should reduce stress since it gives you more flexibility and control over your environment.  However, authority tends to match cultural ideals for men (“power, dominance, competitiveness, and ambition”) but conflicts with cultural ideals for women (“nurturance, empathy, and attachment”).  Given this “double bind,” increased authority may increase stress for women rather than reduce it.

The Data and Methods:  The authors take advantage of a long-running longitudinal survey to provide data on individuals’ depressive symptoms, socioeconomic characteristics, job characteristics, employment status, family status, and early life characteristics. They apply a range of sophisticated statistical models to the data to evaluate the relationships between these variables.

The Results:  The study’s “main finding suggests that job authority decreases men’s depression but increases women’s depression.”

The Research Implications:  This is the first clear, quantitative evidence that job authority generates different health benefits and costs for men versus women.  While this research did not test the various mechanisms that might cause this (“the processes of identity, meaning, perception, and interpersonal dynamics”), it provides a foundation for further research.

My thoughts:

Biological Gender Differences?!?!?! When I first saw the women-leadership-depression headlines I was worried.  Did the finding mean women somehow can’t cope with authority because of some biological temperament problem?  The authors do not address this interpretation in their paper, especially since their research is identifying a phenomenon, not its causes.  However, they provide a lot of discussion and cite other research showing how the conflicting social and cultural pressures facing women in leadership positions are likely to cause stress and depression.  More research is needed, but this study does not declare that women are unequal to men in capabilities.

Well . . . this is obvious! To some degree this research seems obvious in hindsight.  Of course people operating under conflicting standards will be stressed!  I know I’ve heard personal accounts of this from professional women in my life.  However, having concrete, systematic evidence of this phenomena is an important step in understanding it and hopefully addressing it.

Generational Differences?  Because the survey data focused on a cohort of individuals born in 1939, the findings might not be identical for later generations of women working in possibly more progressive environments.  The survey was also limited to whites, so there could be difference for other racial groups.  It will be interesting to track any follow-up research to see if cultural standards have relaxed over time.

Practical Implications? Acknowledging the conflicting standards (manly authority vs. womanly empathy) could be an important improvement for women in leadership positions, if only to explain the emotional strain these women likely encounter.  It may also provide a foundation for a range of new “policies and interventions . . . aimed at minimizing psychological costs and increasing the nonpecuniary rewards of job authority among women.”