Healthy Living

Breaking The Glass Ceiling Is Permanently Damaging To Your Health

A science-based plea for diversity in the workforce.
09/03/2015 03:35pm ET
dowell via Getty Images

When Capt. Kristen Griest and First Lt. Shaye Haver became the first female soldiers to graduate from the U.S. Army Ranger school last month, critics took to Facebook, accusing the school of lowering the bar to let the women in.

Sadly, questioning the legitimacy of women in male-dominated fields isn't limited to the military. And the stress of being undermined by coworkers, in conjunction with experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, takes a toll on women's health.

According to research presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting last month, women in occupations where 85 percent of the workforce was male tested for dysfunctional release of cortisol, the body's stress hormone. In comparison, women in mixed-gender fields were more likely to have healthy cortisol patterns.

"Women adapt to male-dominated fields, but at a high cost to their health," study author Cate Taylor, an assistant professor of sociology and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, told The Huffington Post. "It’s not just women being overly sensitive.

"Women in these male-dominated occupations are actually experiencing a physiological stress response to the negative social climates that they are being exposed to," she continued.

Taylor's research analyzed the cortisol patterns of 443 women, including those considered "occupational tokens," meaning that fewer than 15 percent of their coworkers are female. While the study did not include any members of the military, fields such as engineering, construction and welding all fall under the 85-percent-male umbrella.

“Women adapt to male-dominated fields, but at a high cost to their health.”

Cortisol naturally fluctuates throughout the day, and more fluctuation in cortisol levels is healthier than less fluctuation. If an individual is consistently exposed to high levels of stress, even social stress, over time, the body reacts by dulling the system at large -- in other words, the stress system stops responding to stressors.

Such chronic stress has been linked to myriad health problems including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment, according to the Mayo Clinic.

And, separately, female bosses may face even greater health consequences, no matter the makeup of their colleagues. A 2013 study published in the journal Social Forces found that women who had the power to hire, fire and influence the pay of other workers were significantly more likely to develop breast cancer over the subsequent 30 years, compared to women who had less job authority or who were housewives. While a woman's chances of developing breast cancer aren't limited to her role in the workforce -- genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle choices all play a part, too -- the study did suggest that stressful interpersonal experiences, coupled with the social isolation of being a boss, take a toll on women's health.

This social stress-health conundrum isn't limited to women in the workplace, but can extend to other minority groups, too. A study published in the journal Sociological Inquiry in 2013 found that black people experience similar stressors and health consequences: 18.2 percent of black study participants experienced emotional stress, compared to 3.5 percent of white participants. The experience of stress from perceived racism was substantial.

For Taylor, these negative health outcomes are proof that traditional workplace policies need to be overhauled.

"This points to the need to de-segregate the workplace, in terms of gender," she said. "It would be good for [women's] health outcomes, good for their personal happiness and their workplace satisfaction."

Also on HuffPost:

3 Health Mistakes Women Make More Often Than Men