Workplace sexism isn’t just offensive – it actually harms our mental health

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Moya Crockett
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A new study explores the link between misogyny at work and women’s poor mental health. 

For a long time, sexism in the workplace was seen as something that women simply had to put up with. Leering, sneering, groping, credit-stealing, side-lining and undermining were framed as the price of entry into a male-dominated world. If you rejected these terms, you risked being ostracised as a troublemaker – or dismissed as too sensitive to succeed.

These days, only the most stupid of men would publicly admit to thinking that sexism is OK in a professional setting. But that doesn’t mean that women don’t have to deal with misogyny and gender stereotypes in the workplace. Often, it just means that these things have become more subtle: sexism by stealth, if you will. Last year, a study found that almost a quarter of women in England and Wales aged between 16 and 30 had experienced sexual harassment at work, with 31% reporting gender discrimination while job-hunting and over 40% of mothers saying they had experienced maternity discrimination.

And these issues don’t just damage women’s ability to succeed professionally. Sexism in the workplace can also have a significant effect on women’s mental health. According to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, women who experience institutional sexism and interpersonal sexism at work are more likely to feel like they don’t “belong” in their industry – a feeling that is associated in turn with poorer mental health.

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The study looked at the experiences of almost 200 women from a large Australian trade union representing mainly male-dominated jobs. Researchers say that a poorer sense of belonging in an industry could also help explain why organisational sexism has a negative effect on women’s job satisfaction – because if you feel like your industry is systemically biased against your gender, you’re probably not going to be super-enthusiastic about going to work. Funny, that.

Workplace sexism reduces women’s sense of belonging because it is a form of bullying, rejection and ostracism by men against their female colleagues, researchers said. If a person feels like she doesn’t belong, her mental health is subsequently likely to suffer due to loneliness and alienation.

“Strategies that integrate women more thoroughly into male-dominated industries and give them a better sense of belonging may help to increase their mental health and job satisfaction,” said Mark Rubin, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia and a corresponding author on the study.

“However, we also need better strategies to reduce sexism in the workplace if we are to tackle this problem at its root.”

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This isn’t the first study to suggest that workplace sexism could negatively affect women’s mental health. Research carried out by academics in Sweden in 2013 found that women who work in gender unequal environments are more likely to report feelings of psychological distress, while a 2016 study by researchers at Columbia University identified a link between the gender pay gap and anxiety and depression.

Of course, we shouldn’t have to shout about our mental health to get employers to take workplace gender discrimination seriously. But we can take some comfort in the fact that increasing numbers of psychologists, sociologists and other scientists are investigating just how destructive sexism really is – providing us with hard facts that are very difficult for misogynists to deny.

Need advice on how to talk to your boss about your mental health? We’ve compiled a handy guide here.

Images: Getty Images 


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.