Are Women Clinically Depressed Because Of The Wage Gap?

Study suggests a link between the wage gap and higher rates of depression among professional women

(Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)
Jan 05, 2016 at 6:32 PM ET

We know that rates of depression and anxiety are higher in women than in men. Though the exact causes of depression and anxiety—in men and in women—are unknown, women’s higher rates of these mental illnesses have long been attributed to biology (some combination of hormones and genetics) as well as their greater willingness to seek a diagnosis for mental health issues. But a new study suggests that another surprising factor might be at play: the gendered wage gap.

Women who earn less than their male counterparts are more likely to suffer from major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, according to the article, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine. These findings suggest that gender inequality in the workplace may have far-reaching public health implications.

“The social processes that sort women into certain jobs, compensate them less than equivalent male counterparts and create gender disparities in domestic labor have material and psychosocial consequences,” said coauthor Jonathan Platt, PhD student at Columbia University, in a statement. “If women internalize these negative experiences… they may be at increased risk.”

More California Just Made A Huge Step Towards Closing The Gender Pay Gap

Prior studies have shown that women are significantly more likely than men to be diagnosed with depression. For this study, researchers wondered whether that may be linked to gender discrimination and sexism. Indeed, even after the U.S. passed legislation to address gender discrimination in the workplace, professional women continue to face unbalanced expectations and fewer opportunities for advancement and compensation. In other words, sexism and the wage gap are alive and well in the American workplace.

And it may be affecting women’s health. After examining data from a 2001 sample of 22,581 working adults and matching them based on their respective fields and qualifications the researchers found that women with far lower incomes than their “matched” male counterparts (over $26,000 less) had rates of depression over three times higher than those men. Among women with equal or higher salaries than their male colleagues, however, the odds of depression were roughly equal between the genders. Here’s a breakdown of the data:

“Overall, these results suggest that gender discrimination may be a prominent explanation for gendered mental health disparities at the population level,” the authors write. “This study gives further support to the notion that gender discrimination is a multi-level process that extends beyond what can be directly perceived by an individual.”

Katherine Keyes, a professor at Columbia University and coauthor on the study, suggests that allowing women paid parental leave, affordable childcare and flexible work schedules may improve the situation, as will ensuring women are paid equally for equal work.

Meanwhile, this study is one of the first to suggest that there may be a societal (as opposed to biological) reason why women are more likely to suffer from depression—and that it may be preventable.

“Our findings suggest that policies must go beyond prohibiting overt gender discrimination like sexual harassment,” Keyes said in a prepared statement. “Further, while it is commonly believed that gender differences in depression and anxiety are biologically rooted, these results suggest that such differences are much more socially constructed that previously thought.”