Women who earn less than men are four times as likely to develop an anxiety disorder and two and a half times more likely to suffer from depression, according to the research.
The study, conducted at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, compared men and women with similar education and work experience.
American women are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression than men. However, this disparity looks very different when accounting for the wage gap: Among women whose income was lower than their male counterparts, the odds of major depression were nearly 2.5 times higher than men; but among women whose income equaled or exceeded their male counterparts, their odds of depression were no different than men.
Results were similar for generalized anxiety disorder. Overall, women’s odds of past-year axiety were more than 2.5 times higher than men’s. Where women’s incomes were lower than their male counterparts, their odds of anxiety disorder were more than four times higher. For women whose income equaled or exceeded their male counterparts, their odds of anxiety disorder were greatly decreased.
The findings are based on data from a 2001-2002 U.S. population-representative sample of 22,581 working adults ages 30-65. Researchers tested the impact of structural wage disparities on depression and anxiety outcomes, according to criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, version IV (DSM-IV).
Jonathan Platt, a PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology, was the first author of the paper. He explained the findings:
Our results show that some of the gender disparities in depression and anxiety may be due to the effects of structural gender inequality in the workforce and beyond. 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.
While the U.S. has passed legislation to address some of the most overt forms of gender discrimination faced by working women, less conspicuous forms of structural discrimination persist. As examples, the researchers refer to the norms, expectations, and opportunities surrounding the types of jobs women occupy and the way those jobs are valued and compensated relative to men.
If women internalize these negative experiences as reflective of inferior merit, rather than the result of discrimination, they may be at increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders.
Katherine Keyes, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology and senior author, added:
Our findings suggest that policies must go beyond prohibiting overt gender discrimination like sexual harassment. 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, indicating that gender disparities in psychiatric disorders are malleable and arise from unfair treatment.
According to Keyes, policies such as paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and flexible work schedules may relieve some of this burden, although more research into understanding the ways in which discrimination plays a role in mental health outcomes is needed:
Structural forms of discrimination may explain a substantial proportion of gender disparities in mood and anxiety disorders in the U.S. adult population. Greater attention to the fundamental mechanisms that perpetuate wage disparities is needed, not only because it is unjust, but so that we may understand and be able to intervene to reduce subsequent health risks and disparities.