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Gender, Stress, and Health in Academia


By now you're probably aware that graduate school is tough. It's hard to get in and, once you're in, hard to get out. Don't take this negatively: When it comes to academic endeavors, hard is good - and it is challenging. Challenges push us to do our best. However, they also take a toll. Many argue that female students and faculty experience a disproportionate amount of stress. Much has been written about the obstacles to success that professional women face, including work-family conflict, stress, and stress-related health problems. Although not limited to academic careers, a recent volume that is quickly becoming an oldie but goodie, titled Gender, Work Stress, and Health, edited by Debra L. Nelson and Ronald J. Burke, sheds some more light on the issue.

According to Nelson and Burke (and the authors that they have edited), women in academic tend to experience chronic stressors, such as the following:

The Glass Ceiling
Women are rare in upper levels of academia, according to a number of studies conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley. Women suffer biases in recruiting, selection, and promotion efforts, especially those in the sciences. Women in male-dominated departments may receive fewer professional development opportunities (e.g., mentoring and networking) and may face a negative bias in evaluations by both students and colleagues.

Workload and Role Overload
Academic jobs are oversized and growing larger. The economic realities of academia mean that universities require faculty to teach more courses than ever before, while maintaining active research programs, obtaining significant grants and other sources of funding, and mentoring and advising students. Academic careers pose tripartite demands of research, teaching, and service; at many institutions--perhaps the majority--professors find that campus time is taken up mostly by the latter two, leaving research and writing for evenings and weekends - time that many women need to keep up their homes and raise their families. Regardless of whether they hold a career, women tend to shoulder a greater proportion of domestic work than do men, and they typically balance multiple conflicting roles--professional, mother, house worker, etc. When domestic work is coupled with a busy professional life, the workload can become burdensome, and it increases significantly with each child. Many (especially younger, untenured) women in the academy chronically face an difficult choice: to do the research they must do to keep their jobs and earn tenure or complete essential domestic obligations.

Maternal Wall
Many academic women feel that their career opportunities are limited after having children. Colleagues may assume that they have sold out and are no longer committed to their careers--which may influence tenure, promotion, and other opportunities for advancement (like appointment to chairs, deanships, and high-profile committees). Even women who attempt to circumvent the maternal wall by having children during graduate school often are penalized. Consider my colleague who planned to give birth during the dissertation-phase of graduate school. Upon informing her advisor of her pregnancy, he replied, "I'm so sorry," and was unable to find the time to meet or read her dissertation drafts until well after she gave birth. This is an exaggeration of the problem, of course, but the problem nonetheless exists.

Inappropriate Behavior and Sexual Harassment
Women in nontraditional fields are especially prone to experiencing a continuum of harassing behaviors, from behaviors likely to be seen as harmless by male colleagues, like mild flirtation and sexual jokes, to more obvious acts like inappropriate touching and repeated requests for dates or other favors. Often harassment comes under the guise of joking or kidding. The perpetrator may honestly believe that it is simply a joke. However many academic women find themselves in the uncomfortable position of correcting colleagues, who may, in turn, accuse her of overreacting.

Each of these stressors is linked to increased susceptibility to several kinds of distress, including burnout, poor well-being, and poor satisfaction with job and life. While men are more likely to suffer serious chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and hypertension, as a result of stress, women tend to suffer from a much wider variety of psychological and physical complaints. Women report more overall distress than men do and tend to experience higher levels of psychophysiological symptoms in response to stress--headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, anxiety, hostility, dizziness, nausea, pounding heart, lack of motivation, and various acute and chronic illnesses.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that academic women experience more health problems than men. Thinking back to my graduate school days I recall the bizarre range of illnesses that my female colleagues suffered from: strange rashes, neck and back problems, rheumatoid arthritis, breast infections, asthma, lupus ... and that's just skimming my memory's surface. Even now, as a faculty member, I notice that many of the women I work with suffer from a variety of acute and chronic conditions, ranging from allergies and chronic colds to cancer. This may just be an example of the confirmation bias - only noticing evidence that supports my view, but it certainly seems that academic women suffer from more health problems than men. In addition, parental work stress is associated with higher levels of parent-child conflict--which suggests that it isn't just women, but also their children, who are negatively affected by work stress. Stressors are interactive and cumulative: The more stressors one experiences, the greater the likelihood of stress-related health problems. The first step in addressing these issues is not as easy as it looks: Taking care of yourself. Here are some tips for managing a busy career and family life.

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