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Working in a Male-Dominated Environment: A Stressor?

It's official. Working in a "male-dominated" field or organization is stressful for women.
09/11/2015 02:20pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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It's official. Working in a "male-dominated" field or organization is stressful for women. So says a research study from Indiana University. Researchers examined stress hormones (cortisol) in over 440 women who work in places where men are 85 percent of the workforce (so their subjects were "token women"). They looked at fields including engineering and construction.

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One of the researchers noted, "Our findings are especially important because dysregulated cortisol profiles are associated with negative health outcomes ... [T]he negative workplace social climates encountered by women in male-dominated occupations may be linked to later negative health outcomes for these women."

The study reviewed earlier research that showed the challenges of women working in male-dominated occupations: "social isolation, performance pressures, sexual harassment, obstacles to mobility, moments of both high visibility and invisibility, co-workers' doubts about their competence, and low levels of workplace social support." The new research concluded, "Chronic exposure to these types of social stressors is known to cause vulnerability to disease and mortality through dysregulation of the human body's stress response."

In our workshops, I rarely hear that a woman doesn't work in a male-dominated organization. Even in industries (e.g., education and health care) where women are well represented, the upper levels of management remain dominated by men. According to Catalyst's latest count, in the S&P 500, women are just over 25 percent of executive officers. That's more than "token" women, but it women remain a small minority at the top levels of business. Even today, women talk about being the only woman, or one of very few women, on teams or projects. So, my guess is that this research applies far beyond where the study looked.

Today's workplace was created and designed by men. Leaders were almost exclusively men for generations. It is no surprise, therefore, that definitions of leadership have traditionally been "gendered." Women have been breaking through in workplace cultures that value masculine ways of working and leading. Stanford School of Business published a 2011 study showing that, "women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident but who can turn these traits on and off, depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women," i.e., these masculine traits help women succeed if balanced by more feminine behaviors.

Being masculine -- but not too masculine, too often or at the wrong times -- is rewarded. We know that a woman who is "too masculine" (or not masculine enough) can be punished -- the "double bind." It is exhausting and stressful for many women to walk this tightrope.

It is stressful for many women to work to be heard through the gendered filter that simply doesn't hear leadership in a female voice or a feminine style of speaking. It is hard work to have to prove one's competence -- which is presumed in one's male counterparts.

Stress? You bet! Let's not start prescribing anti-stress medication. Let's work to create workplace cultures that leverage the natural strengths of both the masculine and feminine variety.