Women and Workplace Stress

Available research indicates that workplace stress is a major and growing operational problem for businesses globally. It is an ailment affecting both men and women individually but not equally. It appears to have a significantly greater impact on women than on men yet in the present context, it may not originate in the workplace. In fact, the evidence indicates that work has a beneficial effect on women generally[12]. It is only when the responsibilities of work and home collide that stress escalates beyond readily manageable levels. The research suggests that conceptually this is best understood with reference to the typical masculine structures that underpin business organization. However, the growing numbers of women in the modern workforce is creating conflicts within these structures and the implications for stress for women is becoming critical.

In 2004, the health education company Lluminari published the results of a nationally representative study, “Creating Healthy Corporate Culture for Both Genders”[13] specifically addressing issues involved in workplace stress. Among the ten major findings published, one underlying theme indicates that women experience stress because of self-identity as derived from the social environment. Here, I will examine this theme while proposing a source of these environmental influences. Specifically, I will consider the possible origins of workplace stress for women as well as the implications of this stress for the individual today.

The Lluminari study uncovered several important realities the most important of which is that women experience work differently to men. According to the findings, men have a mercenary position with respect to work and home. For them, work is about power and achievement and they have historically ignored domestic responsibilities believing the latter to be essentially a female domain. Men view non-work activities excluding domestic chores within the social context. For women, work is a social activity. They place greater emphasis on relationships with colleagues and strive to maintain a balance between commitments to career and home. Counter intuitively, family and household pressures make this balance difficult as opposed to career demands. Unlike the male perception, the female work culture sees work as something done in conjunction with others[13]. Women measure success by the strength of the relationships that exist between colleagues[13]. Regardless of these benchmarks, as women increase the levels of paid employments and family responsibilities, role overload seems to take over resulting in ill health including early death[12].

Again, the research gives some indication of the extent of the problem. Women in relationships are directly responsible for over sixty-percent of household chores and childcare[15]. Couple this level of domestic responsibility with career commitments and a clear conflict presents itself. According to stress theory, major life events and strains accumulate and eventually compromise the individual’s ability to readjust[17]. They become overwhelmed and more susceptible to physical and psychological disorders[17]. Unlike their male counterparts, women do not always enjoy opportunities for self-expression through work. The conflict is exacerbated by poor control issues. Locus of control is a clear indicator of stress[15]. Accordingly, women who generally remain subject to male control structures have few opportunities for relief because the classic stress buffers associated with control are not present[17].

The Lluminari report goes on to suggests that the critical drivers for women are recognition and respect from peers and employers. It is my position that such drivers are not consistent with the current structure of business and this explains why women are likely to suffer the effects of stress more acutely than men. Modern business structures use the male construct of power. This construct has roots in the evolution of global societies and it is wise to look briefly at one possible course of this evolution.

Competitive and cooperative patterns of evolution occur as zero-sum, negative-sum, and positive-sum[11]. In zero-sum configurations, members compete with one another for resources. The amount received by the winner equals that lost by the other competitors. There is no significant improvement in the group’s well being because competitors come from the same group. In terms of social evolution, this is an example of sub-optimization. The game of chess is an example of this process[11].

In negative-sum configurations, sub-optimization forces competing members to consume increasing amounts of resources to maintain prominence within the group. The Red Queen Principle, taking its name from the Red Queen in “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll, provides an acceptable analogy for the negative-sum concept. In her declaration “…in this place it takes all the running you can do, to keep in place,” the Red Queen notes that greater and greater consumption of resources merely maintains an existing position. Accordingly, negative-sum configurations result in sub-optimization for the individual but at the expense of the well being of the group.

Positive-Sum configurations describe competitive arrangements that result in gains at the individual and global levels. Gains achieved by one individual result in valuable outputs that serve as inputs for another’s process. The lichen provides an excellent example of positive-sum configurations. They are the most desirable social processes. In these configurations, competitive-synergistic relationships exist that permit sub-optimization and global-optimization to occur simultaneously.

Clearly, positive-sum social arrangements are the ideal. The efficient division of labor enables the group to improve by trial and error. Growing knowledge passes from generation to generation via memes described as, “…an information pattern, held in one individual’s memory, which is capable of being passed to another individual’s memory.”[10]. Memes are important because they give rise to the notion of multiple parenting. Through this process, the group passes not only knowledge but also values to following generations thereby creating a culture.

Applying these concepts to inter-group behavior, it is clear that as cultures and societies develop, they will likely engage in zero- and negative-sum relationships between one another but for prolonged success, they must develop positive-sum behaviors internally. It is equally clear that with respect to women in modern societies the positive-sum arrangement fails. To understand why, the processes that created leadership and the exercise of power must be included.

In the negative-sum arena, inter-group pressures that result from the need for global-optimization, naturally create the need for leaders; individuals that become responsible for managing and gathering resources, the dissemination of learned skills, and group protection. Classically, leaders will come from among members involved in high profile activities and this provides a first real insight into why women experience work differently to men. Realistically, in primitive societies it was likely that men retained high profile roles because of physical ability. However, as these societies became more complex, nearly all reserved these prominent positions exclusively for men. Developing leaders received authority over resources and group members and this lead to the male construct of power-over.

Inasmuch as the needs of the group dictate the need for leadership, they also dictate the roles of all members. Considering the biological differences between men and women, it is not difficult to understand why the classic “woman’s role” evolved as nurturing. It is more difficult to understand however, why major societies reduced the value of this important function. One possible explanation is that as social structures became more complex, the nurturing role became more generalized and so less influential. These defined roles require altruism on the part of those responsible for providing care and this excludes women from the high profile activities that lead to group leadership. The only competitive evolution for these individuals was in providing security for resources. This gave rise to the female construct of power-for.

These power relationships are critical in understanding the effect work has on women. Effective group behavior requires some altruism on the part of all individuals. However, this runs contrary to the concept of sub-optimization. Individuals who do not join in providing services to other group members receive more benefit from group behavior. Apparently, men have contrived to leverage their benefit from social arrangements because the optimal condition for the individual precludes altruistic behavior. Reasonably, this male pattern will pass readily to subsequent generations. In complex social groups, control structures – leadership roles – develop to prevent sub-optimization that would undermine security as determined by those with most to lose. In effect, the group collectively rejects individuals attempting to push past the boundaries defining the caregiver role. Leaders confine these caregivers into lower profile roles thus limiting their opportunities in the leadership ranks.

Under such assumptions, it seems unlikely that any caregiver could rise to control levels. Clearly, though, this is also not the case. Most likely, the competitive structures that develop among caregivers mask the role confinement. Structurally, the development of these sub-groups will mirror the development of the over-group. As such, sub-group leaders will develop. As the characteristics of these sub-group leaders who are typically women begin to parallel their over-group counterparts who are typically men, the women begin to abandon the power-for construct in favor of their version of the power-over construct. Accordingly, the over-group recognizes these changes and elevates these few women into its ranks.

Accepting these models as descriptive of social evolution, several questions become appropriate. Are they interpretable into modern business cultures? Do they accurately describe the current situation? Can predictions be made regarding the impact on women’s health and stress related issues?

To describe how longstanding and widespread these issues are, in 1988, the Association of Independent Certified Public Accountants[1] published a study relating to career development among professional accountants in North America. One key finding suggested that the most common reason for the failure of women to progress within the industry was their tendency to leave their jobs to raise a family[1]. As might be expected, men leave jobs to improve salaries and opportunities. The American Medical Association echoed these findings in 1993. CEJE Report G-A-93 specifically addressed the obstacles facing women in the medical services industry. Specifically, barriers that resulted from formal and informal power structures, inadequate accommodations for pregnancies and family responsibilities, sexual stereotypes including harassments, and a variety of other barriers directed solely at women[2]. This report highlighted disturbing disparities between male and female advancement.

In 1996, Barker and Monks at the Dublin City University Business School reinforced the AICPA findings with a similar study. Barker and Monks also focused on the accounting profession through the Institute of Chartered Accountant in Ireland with particular reference to the so-called glass ceiling affecting professional women accountants in Ireland. Many of the female respondents in this Irish study showed an increasing distress from the conflict of work and family. Their feelings were evident in the following remarks taken from two female contributors:

“If women seriously want to compete with men for partnerships, they have to forget about having children. There is no chance of promotion when you have children unless the woman is very exceptional and stands head, shoulders, and knees above men.”[5].

“Once women are married they are just not taken seriously in the office. Even if they have decided not to have children, it is just assumed that they will be looking for maternity leave and then will never be as committed as men with children.”[5].

Curiously, men today seem to understand and to some degree share these views. One male respondent in the Irish survey along with another, a global projects leader with the Accenture Group, from independent research conducted by me confirms a growing understanding of the problem:

“If women want the same things as men, they have to give up more. Firms prefer a man of 30 to be married and settled with children, but not a woman of 30.”[5]

“To be successful, women must display far greater ability and competence than men when competing for leadership positions.”

Together, these studies suggest that there is a fundamental tendency to force women into, and view them only in, the nurturing role. These preconceptions likely create severe stress for women because they prevent them from successful sub-optimization, creating a pervasive feeling of insecurity. At a subconscious level, women begin to question their abilities.

For women, the glass ceiling, that is probably the result of male power structures, represents a significant source of stress. Curiously however, it may be that women are chiefly responsible for maintaining it[7]. Generally, women are reluctant to self-promote in the workplace. Goodson’s study of 322 male and female executives concluded that women see self-promotion as an unacceptable behavior. Typically, they believe hard work and dedication should be sufficient to compete successfully in the workplace. The Lluminari study definitively supported these findings. Perhaps the greatest impediment to advancement for women is their tendency to over prepare and to focus on getting work technically correct without ensuring that supervisors recognize their efforts. Lacking a strong group promoting structure similar to the “old-boy’s network” women continue to be unable to advance into prominent positions. Goodson further observes that the few women who have successfully climbed the corporate ladder seem to pull it up behind them thereby preventing other women from building on their success. This compounds the workplace stress that results from the lack of recognition.

Fundamentally, societies have developed structures that confine women. This confinement is a major contributor to the experience of stress. A prime example of this group treatment is the social reaction to women returning to work following childbirth. The social use of guilt mechanisms cause women to choose between career and home activities but leave very little room to successfully combine the two. One female respondent in Barker and Monks study accurately voiced this dilemma:

“I sometimes feel that I can assuage my guilt at leaving my children in the care of others only if I spend time cleaning, shopping, and making apple pies like my mother did.”[5].

This comment raises a critical issue. The female role model represents different behavior to that required for sub-optimization in subsequent generations. Today, women cannot follow the socially constructed path. Many must enter or reenter the workforce in response to economic threats to security. However, this entry does not modify the structure of the work role model. The power-over construct remains dominant in the working environment. It demands that women forsake their socialized model of power-for. In contrast, men have historically avoided the nurturing role. Accordingly, they remain unaffected by any generation-to-generation role modification. Society’s enforced altruism regardless of role demand clearly creates pressures for women not equaled for men. They remain effective barriers to higher leadership for many women because they so effectively undermine self-esteem.

An example of these processes occurred recently in the United Kingdom. The nursing profession (a nurturing role) sought to abandon the matronly uniforms that were synonymous with English hospitals. The desire was to adopt a more practical uniform modeled on that used by hospitals in America. However, the earliest versions of these uniforms used material so light in manufacture that the wearer’s under clothes were clearly visible. As a result, nurses were demoralized and given the sense that they – generally women – were being of objectified in a negative way with their professional status being reduced in the face of organized sexual harassment.

It is very clear then that women do not easily interface with control structures that identify with male ideals. As a group, women find themselves torn by their responsibilities to work and family but the real issue is one of self-identity. Existing social control structures have their origins in the earliest periods of social development. Accordingly, they have marginalized the “woman’s role” so successfully that all attempts to break through cause conflicts from the domestic domain. These conflicts can be so powerful they can make a woman question her personal ambitions. She will routinely subordinate her values in the face of those imposed by her society. Realistically, this situation is in conflict with the need for global-optimization and so cannot continue. However, change will only occur when the needs of businesses surpass existing structures. This will define the point where men, in constant pursuit of optimization, recognize the need to eliminate gender barriers.



  1. AICPA (1988). Upward Mobility of Women Special Committee, Report to the AICPA Board of Directors. New York: AICPA.
  2. American Medical Association (1994). CEJA Report G-A-93: Gender Discrimination in the Medical Profession. Women’s Health Issues, Spring, v4 n1.
  3. Are Women Responsible for the Glass Ceiling? (2000, April). USA Today, pp 1.
  4. Bachler, C. (1995, January). Workers take leave of job stress. Personnel Journal (now Workforce Magazine), v74 n1, pp. 38(8).
  5. Barker, P., Monks, K. (1996). The Glass Ceiling: Cracked but not Broken? Dublin City University Business School, Series No. 1, pp 1-13.
  6. Carli, L. (1999). Gender, Interpersonal Power, and Social Influence. Journal of Science Issues. Spring 1999, pp 1-15.
  7. Goodson, S., Dudley, G. (1997). Executive Women and the Glass Ceiling Revisited, Southwestern Psychological Association, Annual Convention, 1997.
  8. Greenhalgh, T. (1997, September 13). How to read a paper: Papers that summarise other papers (systematic reviews and meta-analysis). British Medical Journal, v315 n7109: 672-675. Retrieved July 25, 2005 from http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi.content/full/315/7109/675.
  9. Heylighen, F. (1992). Evolution, Selfishness, and Cooperation: Selfish Memes and the Evolution of Cooperation, Journal of Ideas Vol. 2 #4, pp 70-84
  10. Heylighen, F. (2000). “Memetics” in : Heylighen, F., Joslyn, C. and Turchin, V. (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels). Retrieved from http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/memetics.html.
  11. Heylighen, F., Campbell, D. (1995). Selection of Organization at the Social Level, World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution.
  12. Janzen, B. (1998). Women, Gender and Health: A review of the Recent Literature, Prairie Women’s Health Center of Excellence, The University of Winnipeg, pp. 5-10.
  13. Lluminari (2004). Creating Healthy Corporate Culture for Both Genders. Retrieved July 20, 2005 from http://www.embracingwomenshealth.com/about/press/lluminari/LandmarkStudyExecSummary.pdf.
  14. Maccoby, M. (1991, March). Productivity with a Human Face. Long Practiced in Japan, the Management  Ideas of Edward Deming are Finally Starting to Catch on Here, too. Washington Monthly, v23 n3, pp. 55-57. Retrieved July 20, 2005 from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1316/is_n3_v23/ai_10488153.
  15. Medi-Smart (2004). Women and Workplace Stress It’s More Than the Job. Retrieved on July 28, 2005 from Http://medi-smart.com/stress-work.htm.
  16. Sears, H., Galambos, N. (1992, November). Women’s Work Conditions and Marital Adjustments in Two Earner Couples: A Structural Model. Journal of Marriage and the Family, v54, pp 789-797.
  17. Thoits, P. (1991, June). On Meriging Identity Theory and Stress Research. Social Psychology Quarterly, v54 n2, pp. 101(12).

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