December 3, 2008

It’s the Stress, Stupid

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I’ve been meaning to put these notes up for awhile. About three weeks ago, I wrote the feature story for Eclipse on the culture of stress on Cornell’s campus and some of its root causes. I wrote about some strategies people use to de-stress. What I didn’t get to include in the article was some of the ways stress affects genders.

While everyone is under an immense amount of stress due to the economic crisis, the holidays, being swamped at work, the way it affects the genders has important implications for society at large. One example is women in computer science, which illustrates the ways stress can maintain barriers to entry in certain career fields.

Recently, The New York Times published an article in its Business Section called, various cultures prevalent in the hard sciences: “Engineers have their ‘hard hat culture,’ while biological and chemical scientists find themselves in the ‘lab coat’ culture and computer experts inhabit a ‘geek culture.’ What they all have in common is that they are “at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to women.”

Macho cultures are not very friendly to women nor do they understand the stresses that women disproportionately carry. It is no secret that in even in today’s society, women are not equal. They do a large percentage of the housework including cooking and child-rearing. A culture that is hostile to women will not give them the supports they need in order to achieve a work-life balance. These fields more so than others do not have as much flex-time as other industries, which are crucial for mothers trying to get their kids to school at a reasonable hour.

How doe this relate to stress you may ask? Well, according to Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, mental health coordinator, women in hard science fields tend to feel a huge amount of stress and they feel it very differently than men. She explained that under ordinary circumstances, these fields in and of themselves are very stressful. But another explanation to the computer science problem is that men and women also tend to deal with stress in very different ways.

In a study done by the University of Pennsylvania last year, researchers found that men tend to go “fight or flight” mode when they are undergoing stress from a performance-related task. Women, on the other hand, go into a “tend and befriend” mode. The scientists who performed the study believe that these differences can be accounted for by evolution. In the past, men were the hunters or warrior, while women tended to their problems by nurturing them in a social setting.

The study also found that men and women use different parts of their brain to respond to stress. When men are more stressed, the researchers found that there is an increased blood flow in the right perfrontal cortex and decreased in the left orbitofrontal cortex. In women, the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions, becomes more active.

If one of the major ways women relieve and handle stress is by establishing relationships and friendships with those around them, it is no wonder that women are fleeing from hard sciences in disproportionate numbers. By no means do women have to exclusively network and be friends with other women on the job, but if there is a lack of such women in the office, then the potential for a macho culture arises and that can often be hostile for a women if she does decide to work in such a job.

If employers really want to succeed in making the office a diverse workplace, they need to make sure there are enough supports and networks in place that help mitigate some of these pressures. They need to bring the women back in.