For a long time, stress in the work environment has been associated with men, as women are believed to be able to talk out their problems with friends, while men, conversely, are seen as egocentric, self-aggrandising and simply mute when it comes to sharing their worries and problems at work.
A new research by American scientists suggests otherwise, claiming that women — when in a position of authority — are more likely to display symptoms of stress.
Men on the other hand, said the study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, are able to decrease their depressive symptoms when in authority and this ability enables them to do things such as hire and fire people.
According to the trendsetting study, which is the first and the only one in this area, hiring and firing has intrinsic psychological satisfaction to the male working-class populace.
“Hiring and firing, it seems, gives gratification to men in authority compared to women,” said lead researcher Tetyana Pudrovska, who is a lecturer of liberal arts at the university of Texas, as quoted by BBC Health.
The scientists from the University of Texas, Austin, interviewed 1,300 male and 1,500 female graduates in 1993 and 2004 when they were aged 54 and 64, respectively.
They asked the participants about job authority, conscious difficulty in making critical decisions, how frequently they were monitored, and days they felt depressed in the past week - such as feeling sad and feeling one’s life is a failure.
When the task to be accomplished included firing, influencing pay or making an important last-resort decision, women in authority were found to have a nine per cent increased rate of depressive symptoms. Men with similar task(s), meanwhile, had a 10 per cent decreased rate of depressive symptoms.
In terms of supervision, the study reported that women bosses who were more frequently monitored by their supervisors, who are men, felt more pressure when it came to getting the job done, and, as well, were less likely to fix concise job timelines more timely compared to their male counterparts.
While explaining that the study controlled other factors that could cause depression like hours worked weekly, their (hours) flexibility and how often the workers were checked by a supervisor, Dr Tetyana Pudrovska said that women in power are more professionally and academically qualified, yet they have poor mental health compared to the ‘lower status’ women.
“These women have more education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy than women without job authority. But what puzzles me is how the society has conspired with unfavourable environment to deny them the joy of enjoying what they have rightfully earned,” she said.
Pauline Wachiuri, the head librarian at Kenya National Library Service, Munyu-Kieni branch, is one such woman.
While explaining that she does not feel directly or indirectly threatened by her fellow male colleagues, who she supervises, she admits being under undue stress and pressure nonetheless.
“My predecessor was abrasive in his style of leadership, where subordinates sort of cowed under him. He also had an enormous big posture, which was intimidating and thus, library patrons who are mostly students feared him, without necessarily respecting him.
"On the other hand, I am pint-sized and even more damning, I am a woman. I sometimes feel that my subordinates are undermining me, and that the students are disrespectful. This gives me subtle stress,” explained Wachiuri.
According to her, while she does not subscribe to the notion that her male colleagues or patrons are chauvinistic, she sometimes feels that some duties or tasks she has assigned are done in a certain way or ignored because she is a woman.
Female bosses, added Dr Pudrovska, have to deal with interpersonal tension, negative social interactions, stereotypes, prejudice, social isolation, as well as resistance and undermining from subordinates, colleagues and superiors.
Curiously, according to the study, when women adopted traditionally masculine behaviours as leaders, they were criticised for not being “feminine”.
“Because we assume men’s ‘natural’ competence as leaders, women often have had to work much harder to get to those positions, only to find that even when they get there their ‘right’ to that status is continuously questioned,” said Tetyana Pudrovska.
According to her, female leadership needs to be made as natural as male leadership, with a call to companies to put in place mechanisms to help their workers manage stress.
Local experts that DN2 talked to offered mixed reactions in regard to the study. Dr Luke Odiemo, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Nairobi (UON), lauded the study as informative, but criticised what he termed biased balance of facts.
“Previous researches have told us that women are able to cope with stress better than men, and I think it should have been mentioned in the study report,” he said.
On her part, Dr Hazel Gachunga, a HR lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), opined that the study was timely, considering that more and more women were scaling the corporate ladder.
“The buck now stops at the employers on how to support their female bosses into achieving their potential without being subjected to unnecessary stress,” she said.
Dr Isaac King’ori Wanjohi, a psychology lecturer at Laikipia University, explained that this is an outcome that is expected from a psychological, sociological and cultural point of view, as all societies have been wired to view the female gender as weak, even though not always in a demeaning way.
“We might have broken the physical ceilings in terms of women empowerment and their career advancement, but we have not yet broken the mental barriers,” he says.
And added: “You only have to look at the one-third gender rule: 'Why do we have very few elected women in our Parliament?' Look at the last American presidential race and you will understand that a sizeable percentage of the global populace, women included, view women as weak for powerful leadership positions.”
All in all, he concluded, it is not all cast in stone or gone with the wind, as chauvinistic tendencies and gender stereotypes against women are slowing eroding away.
Very soon, nature will balance things out or the heat will turn on the men. “The key is removing the mental barriers hindering gender parity,” he opined.