Long before recent elections reignited old stereotypes about women as the weaker sex who are not up to demanding jobs, Cate Taylor, assistant professor of sociology and gender studies, had been studying whether women are truly more susceptible to stress. Her latest study, which appeared in the July 2016 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, finds that, in fact, men and women show similar responses to workplace stress.
Taylor knows something about the question first-hand: before going to graduate school at Cornell, she worked as a clerk on an options trading floor in San Francisco. “I was a shouter,” she explains, one of the people loudly vying to place orders. “It is a very male-dominated field,” she says, “and though I really enjoyed the work, that experience probably did influence my academic interests.”
Taylor conducted her most recent study by training a group of undergraduate collaborators to mimic the environment of stressful workplaces where women are socially excluded and their competence questioned. Taylor’s undergrad collaborators deliberately conspired to steer conversations with an unsuspecting test subject of the opposite sex to topics the subject would know little about, in order to make the subject feel uncomfortable and marginal. For example, when the test subject was female, three trained male undergrads talked exclusively about topics such as sports and video games.
But Taylor also set up the opposite situation: male test subjects were locked out of conversations by three trained female undergrads who talked only about topics such as shopping and yoga.
When Taylor measured cortisol levels in the saliva of the test subjects, she found a rise in both male and female subjects. Because cortisol is a hormone whose levels rise with stress, Taylor’s study thus indicates that workplace stress is caused not by an innate biological susceptibility in women, but by membership in a marginalized minority group.
The topic is important, because stress causes serious health problems like cardiovascular disease and, ultimately, high mortality rates. If stress-induced health problems push women out of lucrative, male-dominated fields like the trading floor where Taylor herself once worked, gender inequality is compounded. “If the workplace climate were less unfriendly to women,” Taylor says, “we might see more women in male-dominated occupations and more parity in pay.”
Taylor is continuing to work on the issue and has already presented two papers on related aspects, which she hopes to publish soon.