Why Differing Belief Systems Create More Stress for Women Than Men

This post by Andrew Shatte, PhD, Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium, first appeared  on HuffingtonPost.com

We’ve heard that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but are they also different when it comes to stress at work? The Wall Street Journal (“Office Stress: His vs. Hers”) sheds some light on this question.

The WSJ focused on a new survey from the American Psychological Association, which polled 1,500 employees on a slew of workplace conditions that are known to affect our stress. The usual suspects emerged for both men and women. For example, not getting paid enough and insufficient opportunity for advancement led to dissatisfaction and stress for both sexes. But more interesting than these old chestnuts were the emerging differences between men and women at work.

In a reversal of previous trends, women are becoming more stressed at work than men. Why? I believe it’s because women are more conflicted between work and home, and I believe that greater conflict is due to the different belief systems that men and women hold.

In her watershed book In a Different Voice, Harvard sociologist Carol Gilligan detailed how we raise our little girls and little boys differently. We make it clear to our little men that success and achievement are the keys to their future: mastering math, hitting the ball out of the park, getting the big corner office. On the other hand, we bombard our little girls with the message that their role is as the relationship maker, the smoother of friendship waters, the maker of peace. My work has shown that these messages get coded as “iceberg beliefs”: broad-based beliefs about the world and how we should be in that world. And these icebergs, dubbed such since only the tip of the belief is above the water and in our conscious minds, while formed in childhood, drive our adult behavior.

Take Karen Herbison, one of the women featured in the WSJ article. Karen began to feel stressed when her management style was criticized as not tough enough. I can only speculate about Karen, but for many women, they would adopt a management style that fit their relationship-forming “icebergs,” which many male peers and superiors, looking through their achievement-at-any-cost lens, may perceive as weak.

Women are wired to achieve too, and so they are “encumbered” with both the achievement and affiliation demands while men are much more likely to escape with the achievement onus only. Don’t agree? Then ask yourself whether a job that requires weekly travel, days at a time, would have the same impact on a woman as a man. And isn’t “society” much more likely to criticize a woman in that job (she’s sacrificing her family on the altar of ambition) than a man — who is, after all, just doing his job as bread winner.

The Great Recession has only served to exacerbate these internal conflicts for women. It’s a matter of record that men were downsized in significantly greater proportions than women. And so women came to a new prominence as household breadwinners. In 1988, women contributed 38 percent of a family’s income. By 2009 the figure was at 47 percent, where it continues to hover today. In such a scenario, women are crashing between their iceberg that they should be at home nurturing their children and their iceberg that they need to be at work. And conflicts between icebergs cause stress.

Of course, men and women are, in fact, both from planet Earth, and we share many of our strengths and foibles. Work-home conflict is no more exclusive to women than the drive to succeed is to men. So what can men and women do to short circuit their “icebergs” and ease their workplace stress?

The key is self-awareness. Understand that many of us have developed icebergs about being there for our families that drive us home and icebergs about achievement that drive us to work. If we are to avoid collisions, we need to map out where these icebergs, when we are most vulnerable, and have a clear plan of when we give in to each.

One of my coaching clients, for example kept a written page that spelled out which workplace demands took precedent over dinner with her kids — and which did not. Another client had a mantra at the ready when she felt obliged to stay at work when she wanted to be with her family, which took into account her central financial role in their lives — “Sometimes ‘being there’ for my kids means being at work.”

Conflicts between the domains in our lives aren’t going anywhere. And stress is here to stay. The only frontier available in managing stress and finding balance is in the realm of our thoughts and beliefs.