Study highlights emotional impact of underrepresentation at work

A new study shows the additional emotional burden women carry at work due to their underrepresentation in leadership positions.

working mum sits at desk, stressed


Women experience more negative and fewer positive feelings in climbing the organisational ladder which puts them  at a disadvantage in attaining leadership roles, according to a new study.

The study, led by researchers at Yale University and co-authored by Jochen Menges at Cambridge Judge Business School, finds that rank is associated with greater emotional benefits for men than for women and that women reported greater negative feelings than men across all ranks.

The results of the study of nearly 15,000 workers in the  US are published in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research and tie the different ways women and men experience emotions at work to underrepresentation at every level of workplace leadership.

The practical implications of the study are that organisations should provide support to women as they advance, including formal mentoring relationships and networking groups that can provide opportunities to deal with emotions effectively while supporting women as they rise within organisational ranks.

“It would be hard for anyone to break through a glass ceiling when they feel overwhelmed, stressed, less respected and less confident,” said Menges, who teaches at both the University of Zurich and Cambridge Judge Business School.

“This emotional burden may not only hamper promotion opportunities for women, but also prevent them from contributing to an organisation to the best of their ability. More needs to be done to level the playing field when it comes to emotional burdens at work,” he added.

The study finds gender does make a difference for the emotions that employees experience at work. Compared to men, women reported feeling more overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated, tense, and discouraged and less respected and confident.

Women reported greater negative feelings than men across all ranks. Although these feelings decreased for both men and women as they moved up in rank, the extent to which rank diminished negative feelings differed between the sexes. For instance, moving up rank did alleviate frustration and discouragement in both men and women, but it did so more for men than for women.

At the lowest levels of employment, women reported feeling significantly more respected than men, yet this reverses as people climb within an organisation, resulting in men feeling significantly more respected than women at higher levels.

The study concludes that simply smothering emotion in the workplace isn’t the answer: Inhibiting negative emotions for a prolonged time increases burnout and negatively impacts performance and personal well-being.

It recognises there are areas of future research which include how gender interacts with other categories of identity, such as race and ethnicity, social class, and sexuality. Women of colour face stronger glass ceiling effects than white women and have to simultaneously navigate bias and discrimination based on their gender and race.

The authors also suggest further investigation to establish whether women’s negative experiences can impose an emotional glass ceiling because obstacles such as unequal treatment at work causes emotions such as feeling disrespected, which in turn can become an additional barrier to advancement.

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