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February 17, 2016
Gender pay gap can result in anxiety and depression in women, says study

For every dollar an American man makes, his equally qualified female counterpart makes just 82 cents. And according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the consequences of this wage gap extend beyond the checking account—women who earn less than their male peers are at greater risk for anxiety and depression than those who are fairly compensated.

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Jonathan Platt, PhD candidate and fellow in epidemiology at Mailman, and his colleagues looked at a survey of 22,581 working adults Americans. According to this press release, they found that among women whose income was lower than their male counterparts, the odds of having major depression were nearly 2 ½ times higher—and odds of anxiety were more than 4 times higher—than men matched for age, education, occupation, family composition, and other factors.

Yet when women’s income was greater than their male counterparts, women’s odds for having anxiety or depression was nearly equivalent to men!

It is a startling fact that in the United States, women are nearly twice as likely to have depression or anxiety, than men. Past research looking to account for this disparity explored factors like differences in hormones and coping mechanisms, but so far nothing has provided an adequate explanation.

However, in their new study, published in Social Science & Medicine, the Mailman researchers explain that higher rates of these mental problems in women may in part be explained by lower pay

“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,” says Platt, first author of the paper. “The social processes that sort women into certain jobs, compensate them less than equivalent male counterparts, and create gender disparities in domestic labor that have material and psychosocial consequences.”

Income is a strong predictor of health outcomes, mental health included; the lower the income, the greater the risk. But according to Platt and his co-authors, the disproportionate rate of anxiety and depression diagnoses in women is about more than just material resources. For one, women spend more time on domestic roles than men, an added burden that can lead to anxiety and depression.

On top of that, says the press release, there is an “insidious psychological process” that leads women to blame themselves for different expectations around their jobs and how they are compensated.

“If women internalize these negative experiences as individual-level issues, rather than the result of structural discrimination, they may be at increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders,” says Platt.

“Our findings suggest that policies must go beyond prohibiting overt gender discrimination,” says Katherine Keyes, assistant professor of epidemiology and senior author of the paper. “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 than previously thought, indicating that gender disparities in psychiatric disorders are malleable and arise from unfair treatment.”

Keyes notes that policies such as paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and flexible work schedules may ameliorate some of this burden, although more research into understanding the ways in which discrimination plays a role in mental health outcomes is necessary.

“Greater attention to the fundamental mechanisms that perpetuate wage disparities is needed,” says Keyes, “not only because it is unjust, but so that we may understand and be able to intervene to reduce subsequent health risks and disparities.”

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