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Why Women Execs Get Depressed More Than Men

Businesswoman working at deskThe work stories of hotel executive Alyson Breathed will sound familiar to many working-professional moms. Breathed was putting in such long hours as a marketing manager that sometimes her nanny had to bring the two children to her at work. Late in the evening, the hotel doorman would carry the kids, bundled in sleeping bags, to Breathed’s car.

Breathed was divorced at the time, and the single mom felt added pressure to be exceptionally good at her job so that her supervisors — who were all men — would not question her performance.

The stress load carried by female executives like Breathed can take a toll on physical and mental health. In fact, women in leadership roles are 47% more likely to experience depression than men in similar positions, according to a new report in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Depression is, of course, already more common among women than men, but numbers at the executive rank are certainly much higher than the norm. So why are women suffering depression at such a higher rate than male colleagues?

Sociologist Tetyana Pudrovska – who was also author of the study in the Journal of Health – claims that the disparity comes down to two main factors. The first pertains to how our society views leadership. Unlike their male counterparts, women in business are often regarded as not entirely “legitimate” leaders, says Pudrovska — a phenomenon she believes is supported by years of social science research.

Businesswomen “are evaluated more stringently, they may lack support from superiors, and they may also experience gender discrimination and harassment,” said Pudrovska, an Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas in Austin.

Breathed is all too familiar with this dilemma. Early in her career, when she told her general manager that she was pregnant, he responded by kicking a trashcan; later he stripped her of some of her professional responsibilities.

“They were very angry that they had hired me and put me in this plum position and then I’d gotten pregnant with my husband,” she said.

While on maternity leave, she was courted by another hospitality company and went to work there.

Yet more than 30 years later, Breathed says, she still finds people questioning her leadership more than that of her male colleagues, despite the fact that she’s been a marketing director since she was in her 20s. Recently, she had to stand her ground when questioned by a younger male colleague for voicing a different point of view in a business meeting. “I’m in marketing, so I’m paid for my opinion,” she explained, “but because I speak very directly, I was called uppity.” As a result of these scenarios, Breathed said she sometimes suffers from stress-induced migraine headaches.

Many women report that sexist attitudes impact their mental well-being, forcing them to face a “double bind.” At home and in personal relationships women are expected to be nurturing, caring and cooperative – in short, to exhibit “feminine characteristics” – but in the workplace they must be assertive, competitive and confident. However, even at work, when they enact their tougher leadership qualities, they are seen in a negative light as being unfeminine. “This contributes to chronic stress,” Pudrovska said. And chronic stress can bring on depression.

Yet organizational structures can also compromise our mental health, says Christy Glass, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Utah University. Since women make up a mere 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, they tend to feel isolated and unsupported at high-level business gatherings. “So if you’re the only women in the executive team, you stand out,” explained Glass. “People are watching, looking at what you’re saying. ‘Who is she getting along with? Is she polite? Is she commanding?’”

Women are faced with an endless onslaught of obstacles and barriers that Glass believes “would challenge anyone’s mental health.” For this reason, it is no surprise that research also indicates that organizations would benefit from more women in leadership positions. “Diversity or differences of opinion can lead to more creative problem-solving,” Glass noted.

Breathed still deals with many challenges as a business leader, although she no longer gets migraines because she now speaks up rather than internalizing her stress. She also urges younger women to seek out leadership roles. And Breathed daughter, who once spent all of those late nights wrapped in a sleeping bag in her mom’s office, is doing exactly that. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in gender studies with the goal of helping her own female students overcome workplace challenges.

If you have experienced discrimination, wrongful termination, a wage dispute, or some other issue involving FMLA or ADA, contact the employment attorneys at Emery Reddy. We are committed to defending the rights of Washington workers and helping them receive the maximum compensation allowed for their employment lawsuits.

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