Gender-Segregated Work in a Male-Dominated Society: The Mental Health Realities of Female Employees
Britney J Glowinski
Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Email: Britney Glowinski
Gender, Work, Mental Health, Inequality, Male-Dominated, Feminist Theory, Social Model of Disability
Gender-segregated work poses unique challenges to men and women, with women being disproportionately affected by occupational gender inequalities. Women experience higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorders working in male-dominated workplaces and face additional barriers to accessing mental health support. For my senior practicum project, I conducted a thematic analysis of a dataset exploring the social climate of gender, mental health, and alcohol use at a male-dominated and female-dominated workplace. I am writing a comparative analysis based on my findings that will contribute to the existing literature on the gender dynamics of occupational mental health. This paper draws from feminist theory and the social model of disability to summarize the most impactful responses on the gender inequalities reported at the male-dominated workplace. Finally, I propose possible solutions to the gender inequality issue from an occupational perspective, including employee workshops on gender and mental health.
Fifty-eight percent of occupations are highly gender-segregated in Canada, creating a vastly different experience for men and women in the workplace despite ongoing efforts to develop gender-equal work environments (Quinn, 2021). While men experience unique challenges working in female-dominated workplaces, centuries of a male-dominated work culture have created profound barriers for women to enter into and succeed in male-dominated work. According to the social model of disability, the limitation of women reaching their full potential in male-dominated work restricts women’s ability to access social and economic opportunities (Mulvany, 2000). Women consequently experience higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorders resulting from low job satisfaction working in male-dominated sectors (Tophoven et al., 2015; Rubin et al, 2019). My senior practicum research project contributes to understandings of gendered dynamics of occupational mental health and reinforces the need to re-evaluate gender-segregated work environments.
For my senior level practicum as a Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies undergraduate student, I am assisting in research in the Community Health Sciences department at the University of Calgary. My practicum project is conducting a secondary analysis of a dataset for a project titled, “Gender at work: Understanding and enhancing gender-responsive workplace mental health practices and policies.” The data is comprised of open-ended and multiple-choice survey responses from a male-dominated workplace in the energy sector and a female-dominated workplace in the disability support field. The survey questions were developed to gather information on the workplaces’ social climate related to gendered experiences of accessing mental health support. Additional questions about employee comfort levels of alcohol use in the workplace were included at the request of the energy company. While I was not involved in the survey design, I discern that the workplace requested alcohol-related questions because of the documented “old boys club” related to high alcohol use in the energy sector (Sheerin and Hughes, 2017). Survey responses were framed as personal perceptions of the topic or general observations of the workplace’s social climate. Throughout the first semester of my practicum, I thematically analysed the dataset by familiarizing myself with the responses, coding each response, and grouping the codes into themes. Over the second semester, I am writing a qualitative analysis based on my findings to add to the existing literature on the gendered dynamics of occupational mental health.
Prior to my practicum project, I was generally aware of the gendered segregation of occupations and the fact that women face varying degrees of discrimination in male-dominated workplaces. Since reading the testimonies of employees directly experiencing gender inequalities, I have a stronger understanding of barriers women experience accessing mental health supports and the disproportionate career opportunities men have compared to their female counterparts. While my research paper will be framed as a comparative analysis between the male-dominated and female-dominated work sites, this reflective paper will focus on the gender inequalities reported at the energy company to reflect the immediate need for an intervention in male-dominated work.
I found that most men were unaware of the gendered experience of work, instead deeming the male-dominated workplace as being gender-equal while women described a series of gender inequalities at the same worksite. Reported gendered inequalities included women being outcasted for not drinking alcohol with co-workers, resulting in their exclusion from networking opportunities that men were presented with more easily and consequently propelled their careers forward. Even within the same position, men reportedly earned a higher salary than women, despite one respondent’s repeated requests for a pay raise that was continuously denied without explanation. Additionally, women were often discouraged from accessing mental health supports through their workplace for fear of being viewed as “unstable” by co-workers. The women that ignored these social barriers and asked for support through their work risked being ridiculed, further damaging their mental health.
One female respondent observed that during times of economic downturn, women were at higher risk of being laid off because the sympathetic chatter in the workplace was directed towards men with families. The respondent argued that men and women were not evaluated on capability and performance alone and instead employee family dynamics were heavily considered in the layoff process. Perceived family dynamics unfairly impacted women as managers assumed women would be “taken care of” by their husbands and therefore could cope better with unemployment. Relatedly, two female respondents noted that managers were less likely to hire or promote young women based solely on the “hassle” of maternity leave. While several respondents mentioned that management was making an effort to change the unequal workplace culture, one male respondent wrote, “the fact that it seems to require effort means that there is a lack of equality.”
The male responses from the energy company reflect a significant problem in addressing occupational gender inequalities. For meaningful change to occur, everyone in the workplace must recognize the issue and actively work towards resolving the problem. The fact the men at the male-dominated worksite perceive their workplace social climate as gender-equal presents a substantial barrier to reconciling gender inequalities. My hope for my research project is to provoke changes in occupational policies and practices that will improve employee mental health through educating workplaces about the inequalities prevalent in gender-segregated work. Every workplace should feel that creating a gender-equal social climate is vital to the company’s success because employees struggle to work effectively in a work environment that directly harms their mental health.
I propose male-dominated workplaces implement “lunch and learn” style workshops to incentivize employees to attend educational sessions and raise awareness of gender inequalities prevalent in the workplace. The educational workshops would span several weeks and cover a different topic each week, ranging from the barriers to accessing mental health supports to the gendered experience of networking and the problems with a workplace alcohol culture. Once employee awareness of gender inequalities in the workplace has been sufficiently cultivated, leaders should model appropriate behaviour and healthy habits, such as creating equal opportunities for men and women to earn promotions and to take mental health days. Normalizing gender equity and mental health practices in the workplace will encourage employees to do the same and gradually shift the narrative of gendered work. Finally, workplaces need to shift away from the medical model mentality that puts the onus on the worker to seek mental health supports, which labels the person as “unstable” and could affect their ability to progress their career. Instead, workplaces must shift towards the social model and eliminate barriers to accessing support to create an encouraging environment that rewards honest conversations about mental health in the workplace.
Female employees in male-dominated work sectors are disproportionately affected by gender inequalities that negatively impact their mental health. Gender-segregated workplaces like those in the energy sector need to prioritize gender-equality initiatives that encourage men and women to unite and actively challenge social barriers and inequalities. The change must start by educating workplaces on the problem and explaining the benefits for the employees and the organization of supporting everyone in a workplace. Mental health and gender workshops would be useful initiatives to share relevant information in the workplace to engage the people and in the environment most affected by the issue.
I am grateful for the opportunity to research an important topic that is meaningful to me as a female disability scholar. My practicum project has provided extensive learning on the gender dynamics of occupational mental health and inequalities persisting today in workplaces. I am hopeful that my qualitative analysis will be included in the publication of the larger project to inspire change in occupational policies and practices that promote the mental health of employees.
Mulvany, J. (2001). Disability, impairment or illness? The relevance of the social model of disability to the study of mental disorder. Sociology of Health & Illness, 22(5), 582-601.
Quinn, E. K., Harper, A., Rydz, E., Smith, P. M., Koehoorn, M. W., & Peters, C. E. (2020) Men and women at work in Canada, 1991–2016. Labour & Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work, 30(4), 401-412.
Rubin, M., Paolini, S., Subašić, E., & Giacomini, A. (2019). A confirmatory study of the relations between workplace sexism, sense of belonging, mental health, and job satisfaction among women in male‐dominated industries. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 49(1), 267–282.
Sheerin, C., & Hughes, C. (2017). Gender-segregated labour spaces and social capital – does context matter? European Journal of Training and Development, 42(3/4), 226-245.
Tophoven, S., du Prel, J. B., Peter, R., & Kretschmer, V. (2015). Working in gender-dominated occupations and depressive symptoms: Findings from the two age cohorts of the lidA study. Journal for Labour Market Research 48(1), 247–262.
Author Biographical Notes
Britney Glowinski is a recent graduate of the Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies bachelor's program at the University of Calgary. Britney is a Research Project Coordinator in the Community Health Sciences department at the University of Calgary working on multiple projects related to mental health and gender in the workplace.
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