How Hostile Workplaces Harm Women’s Health

Medically reviewed by Steven Kim, MD on January 13, 2016Written by Brian Krans on January 13, 2016
hostile work environments

A successful workplace isn’t a hostile one. And a hostile workplace isn’t a healthy one.

It’s no surprise that women have different experiences in traditionally male-dominated fields like science, technology, and engineering. A new survey titled “Elephant in the Valley” sought the opinions of more than 200 women with at least 10 years of experience in the tech field, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

These women — including corporate officers, founders, and venture capitalists — say they often feel like pariahs in the office.

“It is difficult for women in tech to strike the right balance without being seen as too meek or too harsh,” the survey’s writers note.

According to the findings, a whopping 84 percent of women have been told that they behave too aggressively, while 47 percent report being asked to do lower level tasks not asked of their male counterparts, like taking notes or ordering food.

“The canary in the corporate coal mine”

Two-thirds of the women surveyed also said they felt excluded from social or networking opportunities because of their gender.

For Denise Brosseau, that exclusion was evident when she was in her mid-30s working at a tech company in Silicon Valley. She was first attracted to the company because of its diversity and equal representation of women on the leadership team.

After a few months, though, she was in the elevator when the CEO invited several male executives to play golf that weekend. He never looked at Brosseau or acknowledged that she might want to join them.

“I remember being hurt and angry and disbelieving. I also remember being less willing to put in 110 percent to that organization from that moment forward,” Brosseau, now CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, told Healthline.

Brosseau says this is everyday behavior in the Valley, which can be exhausting to women. She calls them “the canary in the corporate coal mine.”

“No one wants to be excluded — not from meetings, not from events, and not from golf outings. When it happens, you question why you are working so hard, which impacts both productivity and self-esteem,” she said. “People talk about how many women drop out of the workforce, but never see the correlation to these sorts of behaviors that women face every day.”

Perception and health

This type of behavior is not only caustic to productivity. Research shows that discrimination and sexual harassment not only damage women’s careers, but also their physical and psychological health.

In the new survey, 88 percent of the women said they’ve had clients or co-workers address questions to men that should have been addressed to them. Again, Brosseau notes that this is the norm in corporate tech culture. To compensate, she used to insist on sitting at the head of the table of every meeting she attended.

“What I found, though, is that if I was not introduced with my title or the fact that I had a Stanford MBA, I was typically overlooked by the all-male leadership, as every other woman they met worked in HR or was a secretary, neither of which had any clout,” she says.

Years of this discrimination took a toll on her health. After leaving her last corporate job, she says her health improved within three weeks, and she vowed never to return to the corporate world.

Gender-based sexual harassment and abuse can be so prevalent that researchers in past studies have concluded it’s “a significant public health problem that merits increased intervention and prevention strategies.”

A study conducted in Spain — using data on almost 11,000 women of varying working ages — found that feelings of perceived sexism were strongly linked to feelings of poor mental health, poor self-perceived health, and unhealthy habits like smoking.

And one study examining stressors for female construction workers found those who felt they had to overcompensate for being a woman were more likely to report insomnia. Sexual harassment and discrimination were linked to nausea and headaches.

Are things improving…or getting worse?

Now a corporate coach for the last eight years, Brosseau says she knows her stories are not unique.

“In fact, I kid that I could almost predict who my future clients would be if I could visit the top doctor’s offices here in the Valley,” she says. Brosseau notes that the stress most of these women are under often impacts their physical health long before they realize they need to find a new boss, job, or career.

“Silicon Valley is highly stressful for everyone, and for women, the slights, being overlooked, being misunderstood, or just being undervalued do add up and cause many women to leave technology long before they otherwise would.”

Sixty percent of women in the survey reported being harassed at work, and the same amount said they were dissatisfied with how management dealt with the situation. Brosseau says better management training on how to assess people fairly and set aside personal biases could greatly shift negative work culture for everyone.

“Being hit on at work, being made to feel embarrassed, or being put in an awkward situation as the only woman only adds to the feeling of disconnect,” she says. “It is not getting better and I believe it is getting worse.”

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