When I began working in the healthcare sector, gender differences in well-being at work (WAW) were not something I had thought of as an issue. However, as my career progressed, I became attuned to certain gender-specific challenges my female peers faced. Historically, women are more thought to face occupational barriers than men (Swanson, Daniels, & Tokar, 1996), so it would be natural to assume that WAW is mostly an issue for women. This paper aims to examine whether this statement is true, by describing and critically evaluating the theory and research of four key topics within WAW literature; stress, emotions, work-life balance, and career barriers.
From a psychological perspective, work-related stress is defined as “a state, which is accompanied, by physical, psychological or social complaints or dysfunctions, which results from individuals feeling unable to bridge a gap with the requirements or expectations placed upon them” (Framework Agreement for Work-Related Stress, 2004). Stress can arise from the interaction between the design and management of work, within the organizational context and can have a negative impact on an employee’s psychological or physical well-being (Cox and Griffiths, 1995). Two well-known theories of workplace stress predict reduced well-being in workers exposed to adverse working conditions: the demand control support (DCS) model (Karasek et al, 1998), and the effort-reward imbalance (ERI) model (Siegrist, 1996).
DCS states job demands, job control, and worksite social integration are crucial aspects in the development of health problems. Jobs characterized by high demands, low control, and low social support are considered to increase stress. ERI suggests that work-related benefits depend upon a reciprocal relationship between efforts and rewards at work. Specifically, the model works imply that high effort with low reward elevates stress. Both these models have been criticized for being over-simplistic and not accounting for other work-related factors related to well-being (Bakker & Demmerouti, 2007).
The job-demands-resources (JDR) model (Bakker et al. 2003) aims to address these issues by suggesting that job resources may buffer the impact of job demands on stress. JDR is currently accepted as the leading model (Schaufeli & Taris, 2014) with a substantial evidence base (Bakker & Demerouti, 2017), although much of the evidence relates to cardiovascular outcomes rather than WAW (Vegchel et al. 2005).
Martocchio and O’Leary (1989) suggest there are few differences between the number of occupational stress men and women experience. However, there is a consensus that males and females differ in their management of stressful encounters (Bellman et al. 2003). For example, women tend to appraise stressors as being more distressing than men (Eaton & Bradley, 2008). Day and Livingstone (2003) identified gender differences in perceived levels of stress and the use of social support as a coping mechanism. This is supported by Watson, Goh, and Sawng (2011) who found that stress is induced in females, as they directly perceive the threatening situation. For men on the other hand, stress results from an assessment of their resources for handling the situation at hand, thus stress in men increases as resources for managing the event are reduced. Additionally, the findings imply that men and women source stress differently within the stress and coping process. Hereby, JDR’s inability to account for gender differences when appraising stressful situations limits the model's robustness.
The role of emotions in the workplace
According to Matthews (2004), work and emotions are reciprocally linked. Work has a major impact on social status, self-esteem, income, and well-being; whereas emotions determine work behavior, impacting productivity, satisfaction, well-being, and social climate. Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1962) refers to an individual’s attempts to reduce discomfort (dissonance) caused by conflicting behaviors and attitudes. Employees might simulate their behavior to suit the organization through surface acting (simulating emotions not actually felt) or deep acting (suppressing their private feelings; Hochschild, 2003). Surface acting is associated with negative outcomes, such as reduced job satisfaction (Seaton et al. 2018) and emotional exhaustion (Ozcelik, 2013), whereas deep acting is not. (Grandey, 2003).
Men and women have been shown to use different styles of surface acting (Mann, 2007). Women tend to express their emotions more freely, whilst men generally suppress emotional expression (Simpson & Stroh, 2004). Kenworthy et al. (2014) found a positive relationship between the percentage of women in the study and levels of emotional dissonance and emotional exhaustion, suggesting repeated emotional dissonance is likely to have stronger adverse effects for women than for men. For women, both the expression of unfelt emotions and the suppression of felt emotions are incongruent with their general expectations. Men only experience dissonance through the expression of unfelt emotions, as the suppression of emotions is a well-practiced behavior. Another possible interpretation of these findings could be that the samples are depicting more female-dominated jobs rather than simply the gender makeup of the samples. Future work needs to identify whether the relationship between emotional dissonance and burnout is related to the type of job, rather than gender, and should also compare the differential associations between surface acting versus deep acting and burnout components.
Organizations face the challenge of ensuring that emotional labor is safe in terms of its possible effects on well-being, whilst enabling the employer to perform emotional labor in a way that is effective for the organization. OPs must take into account gender differences in emotional labor when advising both employees and employers on how these goals can best be met. This may include examining staff to ensure person-job fit to minimize acting required, paying careful attention to the design of emotional labor jobs, and training people to do emotional labor.
Emotional Intelligence (EI) reflects individual differences in identifying and managing emotions in self and others (Pekkar et al. 2018). The concept is popular in work settings due to the belief that long-term training can result in changes in ingrained habits of thought, feeling, and behavior (Cherniss et al. 2010), which will ultimately benefit the individual and the organization. Many researchers agree on two main models of EI: (a) the ‘‘ability model”, measuring maximal performance (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2000), and (b) the ‘‘trait model”, measuring typical performance (Petrides & Furnham, 2001). Higher levels of EI are associated with greater subjective well-being (Schutte & Malouff, 2011), better mental health (Martins, Ramalho, & Marin, 2010), better work performance (O’Boyle et al. 2011), a greater sense of control and social support at work (Houghton et al. 2012).
Gender differences vary depending on how EI is assessed. On the performance-based test MSCEIT (Mayer et al. 2002), women consistently outperform men (Brackett et al. 2006). On self-report measures, sex differences in global trait EI are generally absent (Daley, Burnside, & Hammond-Rowley, 2009), however, women score higher on interpersonal facets (e.g. empathizing with others), and men have higher scores on intrapersonal components (e.g. emotional self-control; Petrides, 2009). This is consistent with research showing that males tend to be more agentic and females more communal (Bakan, 1966). Agentic behavior is associated with “masculine” qualities such as being independent and task-focused, whereas communal behavior is associated with “feminine” qualities such as being relational and socially focused (Frame et al. 2010). EI scales conceptualized as interpersonal may be very distinct from EI scales that are more intrapersonal. Whilst Trait EI has shown incremental validity over the Big Five personality traits (Petrides, Pita, & Kokkinaki, 2007), ability EI has been criticized on conceptual and psychometric grounds (Brody, 2004). Thus, OP still faces the conundrum of what to include in the EI measure.
Although recent research suggests EI can promote WAW, only three studies advocate the use of EI training to improve WAW (Slaski & Cartwright, 2003; Groves et al. 2008; Kirk et al. 2011). Furthermore, most EI training is based on personality trait models, which are less changeable than other facets of EI (McEnrue et al. 2006). OPs face the challenge of addressing organizations' demands of implementing EI training against the lack of evidence-based support.
Work–life conflict (WLC) refers to an incompatibility between an individual’s work pressures and life pressures (Thomas & Ganster, 1995). Higher WLC is associated with higher turnover intentions and higher job dissatisfaction (Allen, 2001). Deviations from traditional gender roles suggest that both genders experience WLC (Perales & Baxter & Tai, 2015). Whilst women report significant WLC due to cultural norms and gender biases in the workplace (Rehman & Roomi, 2012), society’s expectations for men to act as financial providers for their families cause men to work longer hours to meet their financial obligations (Evans et al. 2013). Michel et al. (2011) imply that individuals with a high internal locus of control (who believe success depends on their own hard work) effectively balance their work and family demands and have lower levels of psychological distress, compared to individuals with a high external locus of control (who believe externalities are responsible for their success).
Evidence suggests that women experience lower levels of internal control than men because many work skills are male-stereotyped and make women feel less confident in themselves and their abilities (Maes, Leroy, & Sels, 2014). Karkoulin et al. (2016) examined gender differences in the interaction between WLB and perceived stress among workers in the Lebanese banking sector using three psychometrically robust scales (Fisher et al. 2001; Spector, 1988; Cohen, 1983). The findings support literature showing that job control is more significantly associated with a decrease in WLC among employed women than among employed men (Grönlund, 2007). These findings are corroborated by a sample of US employees (Hwang et al. 2017). This study also found WLC to mediate between DCS variables and job satisfaction, implying that WLC mediates the relationship between work environments and employees’ WAW. However, the coefficient of reliability regarding job demands was poor and the study did not account for several family domain variables, therefore this study cannot fully explain the relationship between the DCS model variables and job satisfaction across gender. Future research should seek to verify the findings on a larger and more diverse set of employees and account for the impact of both work and family domain variables on job satisfaction across gender.
Previous studies on the gender difference in the association between the DCS model variables and employees' WAW (Vermeulen & Mustard, 2000) are mixed. Many studies have shown that there is no gender difference in the impact of the DCS variables on employees’ WAW (Häusser et al. 2010; Van der Doef & Maes, 1999), specifically in relation to the relationship between work characteristics and psychological distress (Pugliesi, 1995) and in the association between work-based support and job satisfaction (Ng & Sorensen, 2008).
The quality of work is as important as quantity, as captured by the JDC model. Survey data from 800 Swedish employees (Gronlund, 2007) show women in jobs with high demands and high control do not experience more work-to-family conflict than men, even when working the same hours. One explanation for this is, for males, high-strain jobs are spread over a large spectrum of jobs, and women are more concentrated in education, healthcare, and service positions. Sweden is also considered a gender-egalitarian country, where both men and women are equally encouraged to engage in work and family roles. In countries low on gender equality, the traditional gender model prevails (McDaniel, 2008). A meta-analysis of work populations in 22 European countries found that substantial part-time work is more conducive to satisfaction with WLB in more gender-egalitarian countries than in countries with low gender equality (Beham et al. 2018), thus confirming the impact of society on gender differences in WAW.
Work-life balance (WLB) policies intend to bring more gender equality into the workplace for women (Kottke & Agars, 2005) via family-friendly work schedules (Nilsen, 2012) and flexible work arrangements (Drew & Murtagh, 2005). However, WLB policies are attached to traditional gender stigmas towards females (Hochschild, 2003) and consequently cause distress for professional women (Slaughter, 2012). As a result, both females (Clutterbuck, 2004) and males (Beauregard & Henry, 2009) avoid taking advantage of WLB policies in fear of it hindering career advancement.
Flexible working and teleworking are intended as gender-neutral options for employees to have control over when they work or where they work (Allen et al. 2013; Kelly et al. 2011). Evidence suggests flexible working can help women stay in employment, and are less likely to reduce working hours, after the birth of their first child (Chung, 2018). This supports previous literature that indicates having control over where and when an employee works can relieve WFC for females (Shore et al. 2011; Kelly et al. 2014; Hill et al. 2010). However, others argue that flexitime and telework have little or no impact on workers’ WFC (Allen et al. 2013) or that they can potentially increase WFC (Golden et al. 2006). One reason behind this is that flexitime and teleworking may allow workers to remain to maintain their working hours. This is in contrast to part-time work, where the reduction in working hours reduces the likelihood that work will interfere with family demands. Hofacker and Konig (2013), found that flexible work leads to a decrease in WFC for women but an increase in WFC for men. Sav et al. (2013) indicate that men’s perception of work as an obligation and a way of supporting their families influences their experience, which dilutes the negative effect of WFC.
The challenge remains to normalize flexible working options as an option regardless of gender. Whereas most organizations handle requests for flexible work subjectively and at the supervisor level, it would be beneficial for organizations to define the parameters of flexible work in advance and for decisions to be made regardless of employee gender, parental status, or rationale for the request. Thus, OP’s are tasked with implementing culture changes within workplace settings that eliminate gender stigmas attached to WLB policies and improve organizational success and WAW among all employees regardless of gender (Beauregard & Henry, 2009).
Career opportunities and the gender pay gap
Despite specific legislation introduced in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and in the European Union, recent show that women in these countries continue to be paid considerably less than men (Símon, 2012). The differences in the wages earned by female workers when compared to male workers are measured by the gender pay gap (GPG). Amado et al. (2018) developed an enhanced method to measure and decompose GPG among 15,712 men and 17,175 women working as business and administration associate professionals in the finance and insurance industry in 20 countries. The results reveal that the existence of GPG in all countries, although the gap varies considerably between countries. There is a need for more meta-analysis studies to summarise the existing literature and to help understand the determinants of GPG.
The ‘role congruity theory’ (Eagly & Karau, 2002) suggests gender-role perceptions may influence female occupational aspirations by limiting the kinds of jobs and roles that both women and men see as “female appropriate.” As mentioned earlier, scholars define these two categories as “agentic” and “communal” (Frame et al. 2010). Perceived career barriers can also influence career choice (Watts et al. 2015). Numerous studies have provided evidence that gender is a significant variable for understanding differences in career development. For example, research on career self-efficacy (Wilson, Kickul, & Marlino, 2007), career identity salience (Lobel & Clair, 1992), career advancement prospects (Greenhaus & Parasuraman, 1993), and career success (salary and managerial level; Melamed, 1995) has often focused on gender differences.
According to the ERI model, gender differences in career opportunities can be explained in terms of the level of effort an employee exerts. Effort can be measured in terms of work engagement (WE). If females are exerting the same, or higher levels of effort than males, and are not being justly rewarded, this should have a negative effect on females' WAW. There is relatively little research about gender differences in relation to WE. Camgoz et al. (2016) found no gender differences in the mediating role of work engagement. Similarly, Cenkci and Özçelik (2015) found gender did not moderate the relationship between leadership style and employees’ work engagement. Conversely, Suan and Nasurdin (2016) found that the positive effect of supervisor support on work engagement is stronger for male than female employees. Literature on work engagement and gender is mixed and sparse, thus future studies should investigate the role of work engagement in relation to gender differences in WAW.
By critically reviewing current models and theories within the WAW literature, this paper examines the extent to which gender differences in relation to WAW exist. The paper shows how workplace stress, emotions, and work-life balance can be conceptualized by evidence-based models, whilst highlighting the drawbacks of these models. Furthermore, the paper has acknowledged challenges related to the management of WAW and highlighted examples of the way OP’s can be utilized to enhance workplace wellbeing. WAW is a broad topic that encompasses a range of phenomena, yet with ever-changing work environments and constant remodeling of gender roles, it is more important than ever for new research to be undertaken to understand the effects of gender on WAW. As I continue in the field of healthcare, I look forward to advancements in theory and practice that will benefit employees regardless of their gender.