Does being the boss lead to depression?

It's not supposed to. Being the boss is generally thought to be good for you: Bosses tend to have more control over their work, which is thought to lessen stress. And bosses often have more schedule flexibility than their subordinates, which is linked to decreased symptoms of depression.

But a recent study from Tetyana Pudrovska, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Amelia Karraker, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, shows that, for women, it may not work that way.

Instead, women who have high "job authority"--the ability to hire and fire others, and to influence others' pay--show more signs of depression than women without such authority. Men, on the other hand, seem to have better mental health if they have jobs in which they can hire and fire.

The researchers based their work on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which queried 2,809 people on their jobs and mental health.

The researchers write that women with job authority face the so-called double bind, in which their actual job duties conflict with cultural stereotypes about the role of women. "On the one hand, they are expected to be nurturant, caring and agreeable, consistent with the normative cultural constructions of feminity," the researchers write. "On the other hand, they are also expected to be assertive and authoritative, consistent with the expectations of the leadership role." Women are often viewed as lacking the assertiveness and confidence associated with strong leaders, but if women do come across as assertive or confident, they get criticized for being unfeminine.

The result: stress. And sometimes, depression. Whereas male leaders have the highest levels of life satisfaction, women leaders, in general, have life satisfaction about equal to that of women with supposedly lower-status occupations, or women who don't work outside the home at all.

When I read the research, my initial reaction was that this problem is way, way worse than the study makes it out to be. When I read the description of the resistance and even harassment that women bosses face, the problems all seemed to be within the workplace.

But it's not just subordinates who may be unhappy with a female boss. Next time you're at a cocktail party--and I don't think my social circle is particularly retrograde--watch what happens when both men and women are asked some version of "What do you do?" When a guy gives a description of his big job at Hypermegaglobalcorp, all the other guys, and plenty of the women, will act interested and impressed. Socially, the guy gets a big ol' slap on the back. When a woman talks about her big job at Hypermegaglobalcorp, it's too often met with a stare that says, "Oh, so that's why the homework isn't getting done, and your kids look like rug rats."

It's easy for me, at least, to think this is all in my head. I wish it were in my head, because then I could just go see a shrink and be done with it. But when I asked an investment banker friend of mine who had been at this same party about this, I had hardly begun before she said, "I know exactly what you're talking about!"

Guys who have big jobs are totally socially supported. If their job gets bigger, their stock goes up. Women don't have that luxury. Too often, they're on their own. I have found--and this is only my own personal experience--that single or divorced women are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone seems to understand that these women need to work, and that staying home to tweak the homework is just not an option.

And who has the ultimate job authority? Entrepreneurs. They don't just hire, fire, and set salaries. At the beginning, they do absolutely everything. After reading this study, I'm wondering if perhaps women entrepreneurs face very different social environments than the men do, even outside of tech enclaves like Silicon Valley. Could our lack of social support for powerful women be discouraging some of them from starting and running fast-growth companies? Or are entrepreneurs just tougher than that? I'm going to start asking, and I hope some Ph.D. candidates do, too.

Published on: Nov 26, 2014