Leadership Roles More Likely to Make Women Depressed


It is lonely at the top, as the old saying says. For women, however, it is also depressing. Recent studies show the difference in pay is not the only gender gap for women in executive roles, women with leadership positions are far more likely to be depressed than male counterparts.

Women are finally in more authoritative positions at work, but new research shows their leadership roles are a double-edged sword. The ability to call the shots, hire staff and fire them, make significant strategic decisions and the luck may pay more, but one unwanted “perq” is depression. New research shows that having more authority tends to increase the likelihood of depression for women, whereas it decreases it for men.

There has been a dearth of empirical information and research done on the affects of authoritative roles on women, according to Tetyana Pudrovska. a sociologist from the University of Texas, Austin, who co-authored the new study on the psychological impact powerful positions have on women, along with Amelia Karraker, an assistant professor at Iowa State University in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in December, the research shows the importance of focusing “on women’s experiences, not just income, but psychological well-being,” noted Pudrovska, “because it’s important to get women into leadership and it’s important to make sure they stay there.”

The research study involved over 1,300 men and more than 1,500 women in Wisconsin. The subjects, who were all white, were surveyed when they were middle aged in 1993 and in 2004 after turning 65. The participants were asked questions linked to 16 different depressive symptoms. These included whether or not they felt their life was a failure and frequency of days when feeling sad.

Women suffer from depression in general more than men do. Both sexes are affected by genetic tendencies and stress, but throw in hormonal shifts from childbirth and menopause as a contributing factor that leads to more depression diagnoses in women. In the workplace, women in roles that have not been generally held by women in the past have the added stress of trying to prove themselves and quieting naysayers.

In the research study, the higher rate depression found in women was controlled for, as was differences in socioeconomic backgrounds. It was no surprise that the men who participated in the study were more likely to have positions of authority. They also tended to work longer hours, have more control over their workday and receive less supervision. Otherwise, the hours spent on similar tasks were the same for both genders, as was sanctification of their positions.

The research study joins the public discourse about female leadership in the workplace, particularly in the boardrooms and top levels of management. Women in such positions have long been viewed as either lacking the confidence and assertiveness as their male counterparts or, if they do display those behaviors, judged negatively and labeled as unfeminine or bitchy. “This contributes to chronic stress,” according to Pudrovska. The interpersonal tension, negative stereotypes, social isolation (loneliness at the top), resistance 360 degrees around them as well as the leadership roles in general are likely reasons they make women more depressed than men, but more research is clearly needed.

By Dyanne Weiss

Washington Post
National Institute of Mental Health