Women dealing with stress


Women, work & coping: a multidisciplinary approach to workplace stress

It is no secret that paid working women experience a double day of work, sexual discrimination, and harassment. Accordingly, it makes sense to assume that these women suffer more stress and/or have more health problems than women who are not employed, or than men. Sixteen female and three male scholars met in a workshop held at the University of British Columbia to challenge some prevalent assumptions and to examine the ways in which women cope with their problems in the paid work force. They showed that, contrary to popular assumption, employed women were no more stressed than their non - paid working sisters.

This paradox -- that women are overworked but no more stressed than others -- and the possible explanations for this condition (and research answers to it), is the focus of the fourteen articles in this book written by eleven Americans, seven Canadians and one from the U.K. For example, we are informed by Korabik et al. that female and male managers encounter comparable stress - related symptoms, despite the fact that the former are subjected to more job stressors. Similarly, Verbrugge summarizes research showing that women with multiple roles are happier and healthier than those who are less active.

Her own research shows that having both a job and children appears propitious to married women (p. 191). Many writers conclude that women in general, and working women in particular, are better able to cope with stress because women possess multiple roles, have more resources, greater social support, better interpersonal skills, and display more empathy than men. These forces help women to cope with employment stress effectively despite inequality, heavy workloads, discrimination, sexism, and harassment in the workplace.

The casual priority in the relationship between some of the explanatory variables with stress and coping is not, however, clear. For example, do women who are better able to cope with stress develop multiple roles, or do women with multiple roles cope better with stress? Can women with greater social supports cope better with stress, or do those women who cope better with stress develop more social relations and support? Are interpersonal skills the cause or the consequence of one's ability to cope with stress? Wethington and Kessler, in "neglected methodological issues in employment stress," point to the problems of measurement, selection process, and chronicity which complicate establishing a causal sequence. For example, they argue that selection into occupations is nonrandom, and depends on the coping skills that a person has acquired through education and family modelling: in fact, that vocational choices result from an entire life history of attitudes toward labour force participation as well as the degree of commitment to work and the selection of a supporting marital partner.

That is to say, women may not develop coping skills after they take on a job, but possess such skills prior to taking on an occupation. Because of these problems, the research based on cross - sectional data can't rule out the selection factor. Unfortunately, most of the research on work and coping are based on cross - sectional data collections. In an attempt to remedy some of these problems, the editors intended to test Lazarus's transactional model -- a model guiding most of the research in this volume -- by assessing the antecedent coping resources prior to assessing appraisals, coping and environmental variables, which in turn were measured prior to distress and satisfaction.

This research concludes that managerial women with egalitarian sex - role attitudes appraised occupational stress as more threatening, less under their control, and felt that they experienced more negative emotional reactions to the stressors than women with traditional beliefs. Here again, one is unable to explain the observed differences in stress and coping between these two groups of women as being, for example, due to the "masculine" occupational sector, which is inhospitable to feminist ideology, or due to differences in coping strategies among these women. A comparison of females in traditional female occupations and those who have broken into "male" occupations is needed. There is also a need for qualitative research as suggested by Tom as well as by Wethington and Kessler. An intensive life history approach is lacking to complement the quantitative as well as some of the qualitative snapshots.

I found the book comprehensive in that, for the first time, we have a collection of articles conceptualizing and analyzing the relationship between work, stress and coping for some sectors of working women. However, the title of the book is a misnomer. Contributors dealt more often with women in management than with women in various sectors of work (see chapters 4, 5, 6, 7, and 14). The exceptions are chapter 6 by Statham, who studies clerical workers, and chapter 10, by Heaney, who deals with human service and manufacturing workers.

The articles are also repetitious. Chapter one reminds us of the asymmetric and unequal distribution of job and family workloads (which are advantageous to men) as well as the sexual discrimination and work harassment experienced by women. This theme is repeated frequently in each chapter. Despite its repetition, nowhere is the relationship between sexual discrimination and stress directly tested: Likewise the coping strategies developed by the victims of work - related sexual discrimination are ignored. Furthermore, the book could have been much improved if the editors had presented a brief introduction of the upcoming chapters in the beginning of each of the five sections, showing how they are related and highlighting the important issues.

Theoretically, the editors could have done a better job by linking the relationship between patriarchy -- frequently cited by the contributors as an explanation of women's problems in and out of the workplace -- and Lazarus's transactional model. Patriarchy is at times reduced to a moderator of the stress process (p. 300; chapters 4 and 7) and is given equal importance to that of individual characteristics. In fact, the book tends to place more emphasis on individual rather than structural forces. Barbara Gutek, for example, suggested that if problems of gender inequality and sexual discrimination are not addressed, we may encounter an exodus of women from the workplace back to the home.

She seems to believe that women's entry into and their exit from the paid work force is a voluntary decision without structural constraints. This kind of individual - centered explanation prevails in most of the articles and can perhaps be explained by the contributors' fields of research: they include eight psychologists, six management and administration researchers, two sociologists and one each from preventive medicine, human development, and gerontology. The book intends to be multidisciplinary, but it is slanted in favour of social psychology.

Most feminists have come to recognize that a true understanding of women's problems lies in an understanding of the intersection of gender, class, and race/ethnicity. But the book pays little attention to the importance of class and ethnic forces in explaining gender inequality and gender differences/similarities in stress, health and their management. White middle class feminists have been frequently criticized for this shortcoming.