Women in Authority Roles at Work More Prone to Depression
These social scientists analyzed data obtained from the 1957–2004 Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which provided detailed information about the life histories of more than 10,000 white men and women. Study participants were surveyed periodically from ages 18 to 65.
Each was tested for the symptoms of depression in 1993 (at the age of 54) and again in 2004, when they reached retirement age. In total, 16 questions were devised to indicate the presence of depression, and the answers given enabled the University of Texas researchers to chart correlations between depression and career responsibilities. They made numerous statistical adjustments to account for any factors that might skew the results of their analysis, including the fact that women in general have higher rates of depression than men.
To identify the nature of the authority attained by study participants, two categories of job authority were recognized: the ability to hire and fire and the ability to influence the pay of other employees.
Crunching the Numbers
Women with the ability to hire and fire employees were somewhat more likely to experience depression than women who were only in a position to determine compensation. On average, women in the former category reported 4.468 symptoms associated with this common mental disorder, while those in the latter category averaged 4.312 such symptoms (those with the authority to perform both of these tasks scored 4.441).
But there was a big difference when women with the authority to hire and fire were compared to women with no authority whatsoever. In these cases the gap was more than one-half of one extra depression symptom per person (4.468 symptoms reported versus 3.912). The gap of separation was only about one-quarter of a symptom (.288) between the influence-pay group and a matched control group (with similar life histories, ages, marital status, educational backgrounds, etc.), so the difference there was not as pronounced.
But the depression rates of men and women are separated by a vast chasm, even in the hire-and-fire category. Women with this level of authority registered 1.178 more symptoms of depression on average than men with the same responsibility; and when each gender possessed the ability to influence co-worker pay as well as the ability to hire and fire, the difference was a whopping 1.423 symptoms per person.
What was especially remarkable about the results for men is that control groups without authority had higher rates of depression in every instance. It appears the men in this survey associated more workplace power with improved life chances and more security. And they likely faced less opposition during their rise to the top than women and consequently felt better about their situations once they arrived. But whatever the reasons might have been, the pattern with respect to depression was the reverse of that found in women.
Explanations and Limitations
To explain their findings, the University of Texas researchers speculate that women in positions of power face resistance, resentment and prejudice far more frequently than men. But while this is certainly one possibility—and undoubtedly at least part of the answer—restraint is called for before we jump to any definitive conclusions.
First of all, the men and women involved in this survey all came from a single generation. Specifically, a generation that experienced firsthand an evolution in expectations for women who were suddenly provided with opportunities for advancement undreamt of in the past. Women who rose to positions of authority during this time were pioneers, and those who blaze new trails often experience significant resentment and hostility from those being upstaged or supplanted. So the stresses women experienced during these times might have been more intense and ubiquitous than what women in positions of authority experience now, where women in leadership roles are not so unusual.
The second reason for caution is that depression in this instance was not being diagnosed in a clinical setting but instead was self-diagnosed. Therefore the integrity of the results is contingent on the honesty of the participants, and there is no way to measure how men and women stacked up against each other in this regard. It is possible that men in the survey were more closed off from their true feelings or may have been more reluctant to admit them (either to themselves or others), which could have skewed the results.
Finally, because the researchers were only dealing with data and did not have the chance to speak with study participants, there was no way for them to know for sure what caused the symptoms of depression. Their speculations were reasonable, but without extensive knowledge of study participants’ home lives, there is no telling what else might have been going on.
But even though questions remain, the connection between work authority and the development of depression symptoms in women appears to be a real phenomenon. More studies will be needed to reveal hidden details, and those are likely to come in the wake of these new findings.