The Wage Gap Isn't Just Keeping Women Poorer—It's Making Them Sicker

Researchers are finding clear links between anxiety, depression, and workplace inequality.

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Mar 27 2017, 5:45pm

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If your Monday morning commute is feeling particularly bleak, it may not simply be a case of the capitalism blues. New research suggests that pervasive economic discrimination against women in the workforce is having marked effects on their mental and physical health, too. In other words, the pay gap isn't just damaging your wallet—it's also messing with your body and mind. Until now there has generally been little exploration of this link, but researchers are finally beginning to join the dots, and the picture isn't pretty.

The so-called gender pay gap is a well-documented phenomenon across the developed world, with statistics from Australia, the United States and Europe indicating wage disparities of 13 to 23 per cent between men and women in full-time work.

Meantime, studies comparing levels of both mental and physical health between the sexes have repeatedly shown poorer standards for women—for example, women in England and Australia are up to twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men. The economic factors behind this seem to have been overlooked by researchers for decades, but studies are now beginning to identify what could be a major cause of women's suffering: their pay packets.

When a woman's income was more than her male counterpart's, her risk of suffering depression and anxiety was significantly reduced.

Pioneering this investigation, a 2016 study by Columbia University found that women whose income was lower than their male counterparts were almost 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, and four times more likely to experience an anxiety disorder. The researchers wanted to look beyond existing research on experiences of gender inequality in the workplace—for example, bullying, sexual harassment or outright sexist favoritism. Instead, they tried to examine the mental health effects of more invisible forms of economic discrimination—namely, the wage gap.

Jonathan Platt from Columbia's Department of Epidemiology, says that although legislation and workplace policies have been developed to address sexist behaviours and attitudes, other forms of inequality are continuing. "[But] these structural factors are embedded into the institutional fabric of workplaces in the US, making them more difficult for affected individuals to recognize them as discriminatory," he says.

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Platt's study looked at more than 20,000 working adults in the US aged 30 to 65 years, from a range of industries. Researchers predicted that women affected by the wage gap would be more likely than men to internalize negative workplace experiences—for example, a missed promotion—as the results of their own inferior abilities as employees, rather than the product of systemic gender discrimination. Such a response, they hypothesized, would increase the likelihood of women suffering depression and anxiety.

They were right: "We observed that when a woman's income was less than a matched male counterpart, her risk of major depression and generalized anxiety disorder was significantly higher than in men," Platt says. The results also showed that when a woman's income was more than her male counterpart, her risk of suffering these disorders was significantly reduced.

Other studies have found similar connections between women's (poor) health and the circumstances that produce the gender wage gap, including discrimination against women returning from maternity leave, the greater representation of women in low paid industries, part-time work due to caring responsibilities, and male domination of senior roles.

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For example, a recent Australian study found that "underemployment"—that is, when workers are available for more hours than are offered to them—was directly associated with declines in mental health, and affects women in particular. On average, women and especially young mothers, also work fewer hours than men, with almost 70 percent of employed mothers of preschool children working part-time.

This overall reduced earning capacity means less financial security, which in turn leads to a higher risk of stress-related health disorders. These links are not limited to women in the first world, either: Research by the World Health Organisation has identified income inequality as one of the main risk factors in rates of depression and anxiety among women in developing countries, especially where globalization is dramatically restructuring workforces.

Mandatory reporting of gender pay gaps for workplaces is among the most significant measures that can be taken to hold employers to account.

Although the causes behind the gender pay gap are many and complex, its consequences seem fairly clear—more poverty and more workplace discrimination for women equals more health problems. So now these links have been established, what can be done to change them?

The obvious first step is to remedy the root causes of the wage gap. But the outlook for this is fairly bleak: a 2016 report found that Australia was among the worst performers on gender income equality among OECD countries, while in the UK it was estimated that at the current rate of progress, it would take 60 years to close the gender pay gap. Campaigners are therefore calling for major changes. As Sam Smethers, CEO of the UK-based Fawcett Society explains, mandatory reporting of gender pay gaps for workplaces is among the most significant measures that can be taken to hold employers to account.

"We also need to make sure that there are meaningful penalties for employers who don't comply," she says. "But fundamentally we won't close [the pay gap] unless we take action to equalise caring roles between men and women. A root cause of the gender pay gap is that we don't value the work done by women."

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Like the Fawcett Society, Platt and his team from Columbia see the need to reconsider how gendered labour is valued and paid, if women are to be relieved of the additional stress that current working patterns cause. On top of reforms to promote greater workplace flexibility and salary transparency, Platt explains, we need to reconsider what counts as "work".

"The real solution is to address the drivers of institutional discrimination and commit to giving men and women equal pay for equal work," Platt says. "This means not just paying women and men with the same qualifications in the same job the same salary, but also valuing the work women do as much as men in different professions.

"I believe that domestic labor should be a part of the wages that people earn. Men and women can divide this work more equally, or women can get paid for it."