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How male-dominated environments impact women’s mental health

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Social isolation, performance pressures, sexual harassment, obstacles to mobility, moments of high invisibility, and co-workers’ doubts about their competence – being a woman in a male-dominated workplace sure has its challenges.

New research finds that daily exposure to such “workplace stressors” can lead to unstable cortisol patterns in women working in offices that have 85% or more male workers.

Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress, and its production naturally fluctuates through the day. But those high levels of interpersonal stress exposure (such as in male-dominated settings) have different patterns of fluctuation than people exposed to more average levels of stress.

As a result, such women are at higher risk of vulnerability to disease and mortality, given the dysregulation of their body’s stress response, according to researchers Bianca Manago, a doctoral student in sociology, and Cate Taylor, an assistant professor of sociology and gender studies, from the Indiana University Bloomington.

Examining the stress exposure of women working in highly male-dominated occupations, they found that “token” women – women who worked in jobs that were made up of 85% or more men – showed irregular patterns of cortisol throughout the day.

ALSO READ: Workplace stress is shortening women’s lives

Using statistical techniques to account for the participants’ occupational and individual-level characteristics, they ruled out that the dysregulation is caused by their own personal characteristics or the characteristics of their occupations.

This confirmed that the dysregulation of cortisol profiles is due to the negative working conditions of token women.

Taylor said: “Our findings are especially important because dysregulated cortisol profiles are associated with negative health outcomes.”

“Thus, our project provides evidence that the negative workplace social climates encountered by women in male-dominated occupations may be linked to later negative health outcomes for these women.”

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