The Links Between Women Leaders' Stress, Men's Attitudes, and a Negative Workplace Culture

06/26/2015 08:13 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016
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A recent conference that reported on the experiences women have in leadership roles presented several examples of the ways in which women leaders face workplace stress in organizations today. I think this is interesting and revealing for two reasons: It points to the continuing impact men's attitudes and behavior have upon women leaders' stress; and, more broadly, it highlights that the features of many workplace cultures are psychologically damaging to employees at all levels.

The conference, reported in Financial Times by Charles Wallace, found that, "An increasing amount of attention is being paid to the troubling fact that women in the workplace, especially in management or leadership roles, report being stressed out more often than men," and "... despite recent strides in equality in the office, women experience a lot more stress than men."

The reasons for this difference are understandable, but they often omit the larger role of men's attitudes towards women in leadership roles, as well as the management culture and expectations that both men and women adapt to, often with negative consequences.

For example, regarding the gender differences in response to stress, Errica Moustaki, executive coach at Careers in Depth, a London executive development firm, explained that "women may express stress in psychological or behavioral ways, while men bottle up feelings and have more heart attacks and strokes."

True, men and women are conditioned differently with respect to acknowledging and dealing with issues that affect them emotionally. And this becomes reflected in how the cope with or handle situational, everyday stress that everyone experiences. But there is also the role of men's attitudes and behavior about women in leadership roles. That is, much positive evolution is visible among male leaders towards equality and acceptance of women in counterpart roles, but sexist attitudes still prevail among many. For example, as Moustaki pointed out, many women executives "experience stressful work situations because of a constant sense of having their confidence undermined by men. Women have to continuously prove themselves in the workplace." The "imposter syndrome" women experience - in which they may fee like a fraud in a male culture, despite their accomplishments and credentials -- is not yet dead.

And beyond that, both men and women are shaped and negatively affected by the management culture of many organizations, which promote workaholism as a norm, as well as defining "success" by narrow criteria of pursuing money, power and position. And, many organizations continue to be led by abusive leaders. And yet, surveys and research repeatedly show that these values, these metrics, generate high stress, emotional conflict, less creative work, diminished productivity and less commitment to the work. Negative coping is often a consequence. For example, the recent study that found that many people within a workaholic culture are actually faking their workaholic behavior as a cover-up strategy to succeed within the organization.

So, despite strides towards more inclusiveness and integration of women into leadership roles that are visible in many companies today, the context of the organization's culture is key. Especially important is the how men's view of women in these roles affects them. But also key is the management culture: the behavior and values required to meet the criteria for "success." All will continues to generate stress and negative experiences for both women and men, as they rise up into senior level positions. Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.

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