Boss' Gender Can Affect Workers' Stress

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Bosses in general can be a pain in the … well, you know, but a new study finds that your boss’ gender can affect just how much pain he or she seems to inflict. Researchers at the University of Toronto used data from a 2005 national telephone survey of working adults in the United States and compared the stress levels and physical health problems of men and women working in one of three situations: for a lone male supervisor, a lone female supervisor, or for both a male and female supervisor. The study found that:

  • Women who had only one female boss reported more psychological distress (such as trouble sleeping, difficulty focusing on work, depression and anxiety) and physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomach pain or heartburn, neck and back pain and tiredness) than women who worked for one male boss.
  • Women who reported to a mixed-gender pair of supervisors also reported more of these symptoms than their peers who worked for a single male boss.
  • Men who worked for a single supervisor, regardless of the supervisor's gender, had similar levels of distress.
  • Men who worked for a mixed-gender pair had fewer mental and physical symptoms than those working for a lone male supervisor.

The analysis, detailed in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, controlled for occupation, job sector and other workplace conditions, meaning the results were independent of these factors. The findings, specifically those of female subordinates with females bosses, contradict theories suggested by previous studies that demographic similarities between a boss and their subordinate would promote harmony in the work place, while demographic differences would create problems. The researchers speculated that these contradictions may stem from the stereotype that it is more "normal" for men to be leaders and display the typical leadership characteristics. So while female subordinates may expect more "aggressive" traits from a male leader, they could expect more support from a supervisor who is also female than they actually get, said study co-author Scott Schieman. Women leaders who "act like men" in terms of society's unconscious expectations may be viewed more negatively, Schieman told LiveScience. He and other sociologists suspect this was a situation faced by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary races. Despite the fact that the researchers tried to control for a worker's occupation, another possibility that could account for the finding is that "something about the nature of the work itself is influencing these health differences," Schieman said. For example, women working with a woman supervisor might tend to be found mostly in the "caring sector or in jobs that tend to be under-resourced, under-funded and under-valued," such as social work or education, creating stress both for the workers themselves and stress for the boss that might trickle down to her subordinates. But just what is causing these differences isn't know for sure. As Schieman said, "these are speculative points that need to be investigated further." The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.