I was recently out with a mid-life female friend of mine... let's call her Katherine. Katherine is smart, energetic, as well as conscientious and competent in her work. In addition, she possesses a superior social skills set that has always left me thinking: "I wish I could be like her."
As soon as we met I could see the distress in Katherine's face. I kept quiet, figuring she would tell me about it in her own good time. About a half hour and half-glass of wine later, it came: "I got screwed at work. That new exec. position I told you about, the one that should have been mine... it went to a guy with half my seniority and way less experience." She went on: "I am so upset about this, so damned depressed I can hardly get up in the morning knowing that I have to go back to that place. What do you think I should do?"
Gender Bias and Depression
Gender bias against women is a well studied, and by now, well established fact of life. The higher levels of anxiety and depression for women resulting from those biases is a theme that continues to play out in therapy sessions across the nation. However, and according to Judith Norman's study (1) on gender bias and depression, therapy that includes superficial responses and medication may only add to blame the victim feelings that women in this position may be vulnerable to. Those interventions may fail to address the social or cultural biases that continue to challenge a woman's rightful ascendance to power, control and success through competence.
The environmental notion that women are somehow not as competent as men is passed on in families and reinforced through cultural messages; books, film, TV and advertising that create a multi-generational transmission of pathology, a brainwashing if you will. It is a message that may be confronted through an awareness -- to understanding -- to conscious change of behavior model.
Still, after two thousand years or so, it may be understandable that a woman like Katherine can lose hope and become depressed when she is held down and held back by a society that broadcasts the fix is in messages to women. One loses a sense of control over one's life as well as a loss of meaning in a system that is perceived as not representative of a truly egalitarian sense of fair play, progress, and reward through competence.
Ann Fisher's research (2) speaks to a "personal belief in a just world" conviction. Is that simply a sweet, child-like notion that good things happen when one does good? My friend Katherine is good, but she is not child-like. She is a strong, competent, mid-life woman who will likely rebound from this latest setback. But why should she have to? And at what cost to her and ourselves, when we continue to see the best of us chipped away at?
This is some of the stuff of depression; a loss of meaning, loss of hope and a loss of any sense of justice in a system that only works for a privileged few. Issues of depression may best be mediated in the privacy of ourselves, and through the comfort and understanding of family, friends, and mental health professionals. However, issues of social injustice and gender bias may be best addressed by the same folks who benefit from that bias. I, for one, remain a persistent patriot and social optimist, flush with that clichéd American notion of a hand reaching down to pull up another.
(1) International Journal of Mental Health, Vol 33(2), Sum 2004. pp. 32-43
(2) Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34 (2010), 297-310
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Dr. Robert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org