The Impact of Gender Discrimination in the Workplace on Women’s Mental Health

by Farah Hasan, April 3, 2021

Perhaps the most defining moment of the Women’s Rights Movement to date was the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 following the valiant efforts of those who spearheaded the project, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and those who fearlessly backed the movement as a novel mark of progressivism. This momentous occasion is regarded as the single largest extension of democratic enfranchisement in the history of the United States (“The woman suffrage movement”). Despite such enormous strides having been accomplished for the advancement of women in a society where men had always dominated the government, the economy, the workforce, etc., women are far from seeing gender equality in the United States. Although the right to enfranchisement has contributed to the virtual elimination of overt prejudice, implicit bias against women still pervades. Evidence of such implicit bias is seen in numerous places including pop culture, educational institutions, and the workplace. Particularly in the workplace, despite making gains in the labor force participation rate over the last several decades, women working in male-dominated fields have significantly different experiences at work than their counterparts in fields with more female representation (Parker, 2018). Gender discrimination stands as an impediment to many women’s success in their professional and occupational lives, and often deters them from seeking promotions/leadership. Thus, perceived gender discrimination in the workplace has profound negative effects on women’s mental health regarding clinical depression and anxiety, especially in comparison to men’s mental health when faced with the adverse stimuli of gender-based prejudice. 

Gender discrimination in the workforce manifests itself in various forms and is thus perceived in varying extents of severity. One of the most pronounced forms of gender discrimination is the wage gap between men and women, with women earning about 80% of every dollar that a man makes for the same or similar job. Particularly in male-dominated fields, a toxic workplace culture is developed in which job performance and commitment are measured solely by the number of hours dedicated to work, the number of weekend shifts taken, etc. This takes away any hope for having flexible hours, which many women need in order to balance family commitments (as women are often primarily charged with keeping up with familial responsibilities). Consequently, many women are unjustly perceived to be lazy, not dedicated, and not committed to their job role. The lack of female role models in senior roles and leadership positions is also quite disheartening when it comes to female empowerment and promotion. Without figureheads for reference, women are more likely to undervalue themselves, be modest in talking about their accomplishments, and forgo opportunities to seek promotions (Agarwal, 2018). Women with a bachelor’s degree or higher report experiencing higher levels of workplace discrimination than women with lower levels of education. 57% of employed women with postgraduate degrees report experiencing some form of gender discrimination, compared to 40% of working women with a bachelor’s degree and 39% of women who did not complete college (Parker & Funk, 2017). Similar trends are seen when it comes to receiving support from senior leaders, being passed over for promotions, feeling isolated at work, and being paid less than their male counterparts. 30% of women with family incomes of over $100,000 say they’ve been paid less than a man doing comparable work, compared to 21% of women with lower incomes (Parker & Funk, 2017). Regarding the workplace environment, women employed in majority-male workplaces are more likely to see their gender as a limiting factor to their professional advancement, are less likely to report fair treatment in personnel matters, and experience more gender discrimination. 49% of women working in male-majority workplaces report sexual harassment as a problem in their workspace, compared to 32% of women who say the same about female-majority workplaces. Lastly, only 49% of women in male-dominated workplaces report that their workplace is putting enough effort into increasing workplace diversity, compared to 78% of women working in places with an even gender mix and 71% of women working in female-dominated places (Parker, 2018). 

The manifestation of gender discrimination and implicit bias against women in different forms and at so many different levels often translates into adverse consequences on women’s mental health. In a study titled “Perceived discrimination and health: A meta-analytic review,” Pascoe and Richman defined gender discrimination as a “behavioral manifestation of a negative attitude, judgment, or unfair treatment toward members of a group” and included studies that discussed poor service and treatment of women in public situations, derogatory comments, and harassment (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). It was found that perceived discrimination plays a role in increasing the incidence of depression, psychological distress, and anxiety. Experiencing discrimination on a regular basis causes more frequent activation of the body’s natural stress response, resulting in a perpetual negative mood state. Chronic stress and discrimination may also diminish one’s level of self-control, leading to increased use of and reliance on smoking, alcohol, and other substances to relieve the negative mood state. This may also decrease engagement in healthy habits, such as cancer screening and diabetes management (Pascoe & Richman, 2009). Risk of depression, in particular, is increased by stressful life events such as the loss of a loved one, a chronic disability/illness, or a business failure. Rejection, social exclusion, and embarrassment/humiliation also contribute to increased risk of depression. Gender discrimination in the workplace increases the odds that women will develop depression, regardless of the type of discrimination faced, whether it be regarding hiring, promotion, assignment of job-related tasks, wages, and firing. Women under 40 years old are particularly susceptible to developing depressive symptoms due to workplace gender discrimination compared to women over 40, adjusting for socio-demographic factors (Kim et al., 2020). 

While gender discrimination often puts women at a disadvantage, it is important to recognize that men could also be subject to such discrimination in the workplace. Due to the salience of historical instances of gender-based discrimination impeding women’s social advancement, most empirical research has focused exclusively on the impact of gender discrimination on women. This may be due to the fact that women have been entering male-majority fields at accelerating rates over the past several decades, but men’s entry into female-dominated fields has been largely stagnant. Regardless, research into gender discrimination may also apply to men entering female-dominated fields. Francesca Manzi of the Department of Psychology at New York University reviewed congruity models of gender discrimination (CMDs) to determine if men in female-majority fields face the same challenges as women in male-majority domains. It is important to note that while it is possible for men to be subject to gender discrimination, they may not be perceived as victims because they do not belong to a group that is commonly discriminated against, and discrimination of an “upper-class group” by a “lower-class group” (in this case, women discriminating against men) is usually not perceived as such. Female-majority occupations are often devalued and perceived to require less skill and intelligence, and thus do not come with significant status or monetary rewards, so exclusion from these occupations on the basis of gender is not seen as socially or economically hindering, and thus is not seen as discrimination. A potential source of stress, however, could be the incongruity of gender identity and occupation. Men may feel increased rates of depression and anxiety after perceiving a conflict between their gender and their job, which may lead to lower job satisfaction, dedication, and commitment. This is largely tied to the stereotype threat that comes from gender norms, where men’s quality of performance in female-dominated jobs is impaired when their gender is made salient (the stereotype threat also affects women in  male-dominated jobs). Conversely, it has previously been reported that men do not face gender discrimination in female-oriented jobs and actually experience facilitated upward mobility on the organizational ladder due to their gender (gender-based male advantage in female-dominated jobs is known as the “glass escalator” phenomenon). Unlike in the case of women being seen as incompetent in a “man’s” field, a man’s gender is seen to be a positive attribute that he brings to an otherwise female-dominated field, and thus the male stereotype works in his favor. Ultimately, this suggests that men have the advantage over women, even in female-dominated professions. Accordingly, men report receiving workplace support and report low levels of workplace inequality and/or mistreatment. Compared to the anti-female sentiment in male-dominated jobs, the anti-male sentiment in female-dominated jobs is insignificant (Manzi, 2019). 

The existing literature shows that both men and women can experience gender discrimination in the workplace. Due to the relative recency of the Women’s Rights Movement, the #Metoo movement, etc. women still have a long way to go in terms of equality and unfortunately bear the brunt of workplace gender discrimination. Women are subject to lower wages, fewer promotional opportunities, workplace isolation, sexual harassment, etc. On the other hand, it is important to recognize the barriers that men may face upon entry to female-majority professions, although further research must be done on this topic. Men face challenges associated with workplace gender discrimination, but on a much smaller scale than women, as they are less likely to report lower wages, be regarded as incompetent due to gender, receive less support from senior leaders, and be passed over for important assignments (Parker & Funk, 2017). Regardless, both men and women may experience some extent of psychological distress, depression, and negative mood state as a result of gender discrimination and/or incongruity between gender and occupation. Most men (67%) and women (68%) report that their gender has not played any role in hindering their professional success, but some workers are still experiencing the challenges of gender-based prejudice (Parker & Funk, 2017). Actions can be taken to counteract implicit bias and gender discrimination by encouraging diversity in workplaces (especially in occupations that are either male- or female-dominated) and normalizing the presence of other gender(s), allowing flexibility in work schedules, promoting female leaders, having strict disciplinary policies against sexual harassment, enforcing equal pay laws, and researching occupational barriers impeding men. Eliminating workplace gender discrimination may be a slow process, but with time, dedication, and sincere activism, it is an immense stride toward achieving true gender equality in America. 


References

Agarwal, P. (2018, August 31). How you can encourage more women into your workforce. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/08/31/how-you-can-encourage-more-women-into-your-workforce/

Kim, G., Kim, J., Lee, S.-K., Sim, J., Kim, Y., Yun, B.-Y., & Yoon, J.-H. (2020). Multidimensional gender discrimination in workplace and depressive symptoms. PloS One, 15(7), e0234415.

Manzi, F. (2019). Are the processes underlying discrimination the same for women and men? A critical review of congruity models of gender discrimination. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00469

Parker, K. (2018, March 7). Women in majority-male workplaces report higher rates of gender discrimination. Retrieved August 2, 2020, from Pewresearch.org website: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/07/women-in-majority-male-workplaces-report-higher-rates-of-gender-discrimination/

Parker, K., & Funk, C. (2017, December 14). Gender discrimination comes in many forms for today’s working women. Retrieved August 2, 2020, from Pewresearch.org website: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/12/14/gender-discrimination-comes-in-many-forms-for-todays-working-women/

Pascoe, E. A., & Smart Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135(4), 531–554.

The woman suffrage movement. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2020, from Womenshistory.org website: https://www.womenshistory.org/resources/general/woman-suffrage-movement