By now, you shouldn't be a stranger to the fact that women are fighting a tough equality battle--they earn less than men, spend more hours doing household chores and caring for children, and disproportionately face sexual harassment, for example.

So we should jump through whatever hoops are necessary to help them out, right?

Unfortunately, says a new study from Yale School of Public Health, it's not quite that clear cut.

The study, published in Health Psychology, had 98 older married couples fill out a questionnaire about their relationship to their spouse. The questionnaire also gathered data on the participants' health. Then, the researchers split the couples into four groups:

  • Neither spouse got caregiving support
  • The wife got caregiving support
  • The husband got caregiving support
  • Both spouses got caregiving support

Researchers checked the participants' blood pressure and heart rate before, during, and after discussions about the caregiving they were getting. During and after the sessions, participants also filled in researchers on how distressed, close, and supported they felt.

The hypothesis for the study was that both husbands and wives would see a drop in blood pressure and heart rate, and that women likely would benefit most, since they statistically have a greater need for a helping hand. But that's not what the researchers found. When wives helped their husbands, the husbands' blood pressure and heart rate dropped. But when the support was similar for both people in the marriage, heart rate stayed elevated for both wives and husbands. The couples felt closer, but the wives felt even more stressed out.

The researchers explained that the results likely are due to underlying gender role stereotypes. Husbands admitted they expected wives to offer some caregiving and felt relatively comfortable when that expectation was met. But for women, having the assistance caused trouble because it conflicted with their perception of what they were supposed to do and get.

While this study admittedly focused on older couples, it's significant to business professionals in that gender roles solidify well before individuals enter the office--studies suggest that people can have a sense of rudimentary stereotypes by age 2, and children distinguish between gender concepts (e.g., dresses for girls) by the time they enter preschool. By the time individuals enter the office as adults, their concept of what to shoulder at work and at home is highly sophisticated. And those concepts can become reinforced as women start their families and have difficulty obtaining paternity leave options with their husbands. And as people live longer, young women--both married and unmarried--are more likely than men to care for aging parents, too.

With these gender expectations swirling, be aware that many women--particularly older women, who grew up with starker gender contrasts and who worked under those contrasts for years--might not want you to help in ways that contradict what they've internalized. Some women might be more receptive to having more personal days they can use if children get sick, for example, than to getting public speaking or investing classes. This doesn't mean you can't slowly work for a more progressive overall culture, or that you'll be able to fit everyone into a neat stereotype in terms of what they're comfortable with. But you might benefit from being truly individualized and retaining some traditional options within what you offer, so you're not merely adding more anxiety to the shoulders of those who do still believe in and follow traditional norms.