Whether we choose to believe it or not, it’s not often easy being a woman in the working world. A lot of work places are still sex-segregate — for example, most elementary school teachers are women, while chemistry professors are mostly men — and women who enter into mostly male-dominated career fields still face a lot of obstacles. But does this have repercussions on a woman’s health? Researchers from Indiana University Bloomington, Bianca Manago, doctoral student in sociology, and Cate Taylor, assistant professor sociology and gender studies, are seeking to discover just that, examining what it means to be a woman in an industry made up of mostly men, and how this impacts levels of stress.

“We find that [women working in sex-segregated fields] are more likely to experience exposure to high levels of interpersonal, workplace stressors,” Manago said in a press release.

Often when a woman is working among mostly men, she’ll be subjected to more challenges than when in an office with more gender equality; many of these women will describe being subjected to difficulties such as performance pressures, sexual harassment, a hard time moving up in their company, coworkers doubting their competence, and low levels of support from coworkers. If these levels of stress persist, researchers are finding that women will experience dysregulation in their stress response, creating vulnerabilities to future diseases and even increased risk of mortality.

“Everyone is exposed to social stressors,” said Taylor in an interview with Medical Daily, “and your cortisol can jump throughout the course of the day when you’re exposed to stressors. What happens, though, is that if someone is exposed to a lot of stress for a long period of time, their natural cortisol dysregulates [meaning that] over time their stress response becomes dulled.” When this happens, she explains, their body cannot respond to stress as it normally would, leaving them open to diseases such as coronary heart disease, breast cancer, insulin resistance syndrome and diabetes, cognitive decline while aging, and psychiatric disorders like PTSD and depression.

To identify whether cortisol dysregulation is happening to women working in mostly male fields, Taylor explains that herself and Manago looked at a pool of 443 women, some of which worked in a 50-50 male and female environment, while the rest worked in a field with 85 percent or more male coworkers. They then tracked their average cortisol levels throughout the day, finding that women who were working in a more integrated field had more of a normalized stress response. Women who were in the minority, though, were found to have less spikes in their cortisol levels throughout the day, indicating a dulled stress response. The takeaway: higher, prolonged levels of stress are leaving these women vulnerable to disease.

But, this concerning physiological response is in no way meant to discourage women from working in these occupations. In fact, it should be taken as just one more reason why more of an effort should be made to de-segregate mostly male dominated occupations.

“I definitely think women should go into these occupations especially if they are interested in them,” Taylor said. “Male-dominated occupations are, in many ways better; they pay better, they have higher average salary and are associated with higher social status. They also have better working conditions, they tend to be more flexible, and more family friendly.”

When asked how women can cope with the stress they face in these environments, Taylor said, “The issue is not with fixing women, but with fixing this environment.” In order to prevent women from accumulating these health problems, we must take a step back and reevaluate what is wrong with these types of environments that are leading women to have this physical response. Women will continue to explore fields occupied mostly by men, like tech industries, engineering positions, and scientific fields, but what should change is how we respond to these women choosing to enter into these industries.

The most basic solution is to de-segregate, says Taylor. If women are no longer subjected to the social pressures that come with being the “token” female, and instead have the support of other women who are also working in that field, the stress that often comes with these hardships will diminish.

“We need to make better programs to get more women into these occupations, and once this happens then it doesn’t become a problem for women,” Taylor said. And this goes beyond giving women the proper education to work in those fields; we must find a way to make women feel that their sex does not govern how they perform in a work environment. Only when we eliminate workplace sexual discrimination can we put these health issues behind us.

Source: Manago B, Taylor C, et al. Occupational Sex Segregation and Physiological Stress Exposure. American Sociological Association Meetings. 2015.