Do job stressors affect men and women differently? This question has only recently been addressed in the job stress–illness literature. In fact, the word gender does not even appear in the index of the first edition of the Handbook of Stress (Goldberger and Breznitz 1982) nor does it appear in the indices of such major reference books as Job Stress and Blue Collar Work (Cooper and Smith 1985) and Job Control and Worker Health (Sauter, Hurrell and Cooper 1989). Moreover, in a 1992 review of moderator variables and interaction effects in the occupational stress literature, gender effects were not even mentioned (Holt 1992). One reason for this state of affairs lies in the history of occupational health and safety psychology, which in turn reflects the pervasive gender stereotyping in our culture. With the exception of reproductive health, when researchers have looked at physical health outcomes and physical injuries, they have generally studied men and variations in their work. When researchers have studied mental health outcomes, they have generally studied women and variations in their social roles.
As a result, the “available evidence” on the physical health impact of work has until recently been almost completely limited to men (Hall 1992). For example, attempts to identify correlates of coronary heart disease have been focused exclusively on men and on aspects of their work; researchers did not even inquire into their male subjects’ marital or parental roles (Rosenman et al. 1975). Indeed, few studies of the job stress–illness relationship in men include assessments of their marital and parental relationships (Caplan et al. 1975).
In contrast, concern about reproductive health, fertility and pregnancy focused primarily on women. Not surprisingly, “the research on reproductive effects of occupational exposures is far more extensive on females than on males” (Walsh and Kelleher 1987). With respect to psychological distress, attempts to specify the psychosocial correlates, in particular the stressors associated with balancing work and family demands, have centred heavily on women.
By reinforcing the notion of “separate spheres” for men and women, these conceptualizations and the research paradigms they generated prevented any examination of gender effects, thereby effectively controlling for the influence of gender. Extensive sex segregation in the workplace (Bergman 1986; Reskin and Hartman 1986) also acts as a control, precluding the study of gender as a moderator. If all men are employed in “men’s jobs” and all women are employed in “women’s jobs”, it would not be reasonable to ask about the moderating effect of gender on the job stress–illness relationship: job conditions and gender would be confounded. It is only when some women are employed in jobs that men occupy and when some men are employed in jobs that women occupy that the question is meaningful.
Controlling is one of three strategies for treating the effects of gender. The other two are ignoring these effects or analysing them (Hall 1991). Most investigations of health have either ignored or controlled for gender, thereby accounting for the dearth of references to gender as discussed above and for a body of research that reinforces stereotyped views about the role of gender in the job stress–illness relationship. These views portray women as essentially different from men in ways that render them less robust in the workplace, and portray men as comparatively unaffected by non-workplace experiences.
In spite of this beginning, the situation is already changing. Witness the publication in 1987 of Gender and Stress (Barnett, Biener and Baruch 1987), the first edited volume focusing specifically on the impact of gender at all points in the stress reaction. And the second edition of the Handbook of Stress (Barnett 1992) includes a chapter on gender effects. Indeed, current studies increasingly reflect the third strategy: analysing gender effects. This strategy holds great promise, but also has pitfalls. Operationally, it involves analysing data relating to males and females and estimating both the main and the interaction effects of gender. A significant main effect tells us that after controlling for the other predictors in the model, men and women differ with respect to the level of the outcome variable. Interaction-effects analyses concern differential reactivity, that is, does the relationship between a given stressor and a health outcome differ for women and men?
The main promise of this line of inquiry is to challenge stereotyped views of women and men. The main pitfall is that conclusions about gender difference can still be drawn erroneously. Because gender is confounded with many other variables in our society, these variables have to be taken into account before conclusions about gender can be inferred. For example, samples of employed men and women will undoubtedly differ with respect to a host of work and non-work variables that could reasonably affect health outcomes. Most important among these contextual variables are occupational prestige, salary, part-time versus full-time employment, marital status, education, employment status of spouse, overall work burdens and responsibility for care of younger and older dependants. In addition, evidence suggests the existence of gender differences in several personality, cognitive, behavioural and social system variables that are related to health outcomes. These include: sensation seeking; self-efficacy (feelings of competence); external locus of control; emotion-focused versus problem-focused coping strategies; use of social resources and social support; harmful acquired risks, such as smoking and alcohol abuse; protective behaviours, such as exercise, balanced diets and preventive health regimens; early medical intervention; and social power (Walsh, Sorensen and Leonard, in press). The better one can control these contextual variables, the closer one can get to understanding the effect of gender per se on the relationships of interest, and thereby to understanding whether it is gender or other, gender-related variables that are the effective moderators.
To illustrate, in one study (Karasek 1990) job changes among white-collar workers were less likely to be associated with negative health outcomes if the changes resulted in increased job control. This finding was true for men, not women. Further analyses indicated that job control and gender were confounded. For women, one of “the less aggressive [or powerful] groups in the labour market” (Karasek 1990), white-collar job changes often involved reduced control, whereas for men, such job changes often involved increased control. Thus, power, not gender, accounted for this interaction effect. Such analyses lead us to refine the question about moderator effects. Do men and women react differentially to workplace stressors because of their inherent (i.e., biological) nature or because of their different experiences?
Although only a few studies have examined gender interaction effects, most report that when appropriate controls are utilized, the relationship between job conditions and physical or mental health outcomes is not affected by gender. (Lowe and Northcott 1988 describe one such study). In other words, there is no evidence of an inherent difference in reactivity.
Findings from a random sample of full-time employed men and women in dual-earner couples illustrates this conclusion with respect to psychological distress. In a series of cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses, a matched pairs design was used that controlled for such individual-level variables as age, education, occupational prestige and marital-role quality, and for such couple-level variables as parental status, years married and household income (Barnett et al. 1993; Barnett et al. 1995; Barnett, Brennan and Marshall 1994). Positive experiences on the job were associated with low distress; insufficient skill discretion and overload were associated with high distress; experiences in the roles of partner and parent moderated the relationship between job experiences and distress; and change over time in skill discretion and overload were each associated with change over time in psychological distress. In no case was the effect of gender significant. In other words, the magnitude of these relationships was not affected by gender.
One important exception is tokenism (see, for example, Yoder 1991). Whereas “it is clear and undeniable that there is a considerable advantage in being a member of the male minority in any female profession” (Kadushin 1976), the opposite is not true. Women who are in minority in a male work situation experience a considerable disadvantage. Such a difference is readily understandable in the context of men’s and women’s relative power and status in our culture.
Overall, studies of physical health outcomes also fail to reveal significant gender interaction effects. It appears, for example, that characteristics of work activity are stronger determinants of safety than are attributes of workers, and that women in traditionally male occupations suffer the same types of injury with approximately the same frequency as their male counterparts. Moreover, poorly designed protective equipment, not any inherent incapacity on the part of women in relation to the work, is often to blame when women in male-dominated jobs experience more injuries (Walsh, Sorensen and Leonard, 1995).
Two caveats are in order. First, no one study controls for all the gender-related covariates. Therefore, any conclusions about “gender” effects must be tentative. Secondly, because controls vary from study to study, comparisons between studies are difficult.
As increasing numbers of women enter the labour force and occupy jobs similar to those occupied by men, both the opportunity and the need for analysing the effect of gender on the job stress–illness relationship also increase. In addition, future research needs to refine the conceptualization and measurement of the stress construct to include job stressors important to women; extend interaction effects analyses to studies previously restricted to male or female samples, for example, studies of reproductive health and of stresses due to non-workplace variables; and examine the interaction effects of race and class as well as the joint interaction effects of gender x race and gender x class.