Women's History MonthWomen's History Month

The state of women in the workplace hangs in the balance

Addressing all women’s mental health needs.

It’s no secret women often wear multiple hats, both in our personal lives and in the workplace. But how does juggling all these responsibilities impact mental health?

While our home and work lives are supposed to exist separately, we know that’s not always how reality pans out. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into stark relief.  With employees, especially women, leaving the workforce in droves, employers need to promote work-life balance now more than ever if they want to attract — and, more importantly, retain — women from all backgrounds and experiences. 

With employees, especially women, leaving the workforce in droves, employers need to promote work-life balance now more than ever if they want to attract — and, more importantly, retain — women from all backgrounds and experiences. 

Women often come home from their jobs (or in our pandemic era, close their laptops or work yet another exhausting shift and then clock out) and then swoop in to make dinner, help children or other family members with tasks, attend to the emotional needs of their loved ones, and complete a myriad of other chores.

Workplace expectations

The expectations placed on women to shoulder the majority of the emotional, cognitive, and physical labor for a household, also often follows them into the workplace. Many women experience being expected to fulfill gendered roles, like being a nurturing manager, or being “easy going” at work, or taking on additional unpaid work. These expectations bring light to the fact that the workplace wasn’t originally designed for women and in many cases still hasn’t updated its norms and culture to accommodate women.  

We no longer exist in the America where men alone shoulder the financial duties and women take on the domestic obligations. Most women have to work to support their families. They don’t have a choice. In fact, one study revealed that around 70% of U.S. mothers are the primary breadwinners in their families for at least one year before their child turns 18. And moms spend an average of six years in this role.  

We no longer exist in the America where men alone shoulder the financial duties and women take on the domestic obligations.

The promise of diversity is shattered without inclusion

We can’t ignore the fact that women are often overburdened with family care, household work, and demanding jobs all while attempting to excel at them all. And women with intersectional identities (e.g., LGBTQ+, women of Color), many of whom have been in the workforce for centuries, face additional burdens and rigid expectations. 

When it comes to the workplace, people with marginalized identities are often overlooked or even ignored. This doesn’t always happen on purpose. Employers, even if they have the best intentions, are influenced by powerful forces such as structural racism, sexism, and transphobia, because they’re embedded in many formal and informal policies that drive company behavior. Unfortunately, this means minoritized employees receive lower pay and fewer promotions (especially in executive-level positions). Research from McKinsey shows that “for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. As a result, men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, which means that there are far fewer women to promote to higher levels.” And women of Color lose ground to white women and men at every step of the corporate ladder. As such, the promise of diversity is often shattered because it doesn’t incorporate inclusion. Inclusion means having a seat and a voice at the proverbial table.

And women of Color lose ground to white women and men at every step of the corporate ladder.

While there’s an emphasis in the professional world to “bring your authentic self to work,” that’s not always a safe or accepted choice when women with intersectional identities actually do this. For example, the natural hairstyles, mannerisms, and speaking styles of Black women are often critiqued in work settings, both explicitly and implicitly. Many workers face pressure to assimilate to the dominant work culture and, often, that’s a white American or Western culture. So despite the rallying call to “be yourself,” in a job, this statement often falls flat when women with intersectional identities take this statement at face-value.

What is the pet to threat phenomenon?

Even more insidious is what can happen when Black women take an assertive stance or express their ideas at work. Known as the pet to threat phenomenon, this occurs when Black women are initially welcomed with open arms in a work setting, and as they gain more confidence and competence within their position or start to identify cracks in the system, their managers turn indifferent towards them. They’re seen as threatening the status quo of the dominant organizational culture. 

Women of color, especially Black women, have to be hypervigilant to ensure they act in a way that doesn’t cost them their job or destroy their mental health.

In cases of the pet to threat phenomenon, women of color, especially Black women, have to be hypervigilant to ensure they act in a way that doesn’t cost them their job or destroy their mental health. Often, they’re looking over their shoulders to check that they’re perceived in a way that’s accepted by the mainstream organizational culture. This can mean curbing back how one naturally acts, which adds another daily strain on top of racism, sexism, discrimination, and  microaggressions at work.

The impact of being the only

Being the only or one of the few people who share your identity in a workplace also enacts a heavy toll. Transgender employees often face feeling uncomfortable disclosing their identity at work and report feeling less supported than their cisgender co-workers. Transgender women may also face more than one form of discrimination because they’re transgender and a woman — this is called intersectional discrimination. All of this takes a serious toll on a woman’s mental health.   

Being the only or one of the few people who share your identity in a workplace also enacts a heavy toll.

At the end of the day, the data shows that women experience higher rates of most mental health conditions. And we know that the pandemic and other societal stressors have made it especially difficult for women to balance their responsibilities, while also taking care of their own mental health. Employers can play a big role in reducing the unique work-related stressors that women face by creating a work environment that is structured to support every employee’s needs.

Stay tuned to learn about actionable steps employers can use to make their workplaces better for women of all identities.


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About the Author

Juliette McClendon, Ph.D.

Juliette McClendon, Ph.D.

Director of Medical Affairs, Licensed Psychologist

Dr. McClendon is the Director of Medical Affairs at Big Health. She is a clinical psychologist by training; her work emphasizes evidence-based practice, culturally responsive care, and mental health equity. She received her PhD in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a BA in Psychology from Harvard University. She completed her post-doctoral training at VA Boston as an Advanced Women’s Health Fellow. Dr. McClendon studies the impact of stress on racial/ethnic disparities in health. Dr. McClendon has over a dozen peer-reviewed research articles focusing on the impact of stress on health disparities, the impact of racism and discrimination on mental health, and identifying intervention approaches that can mitigate the impact of racism and discrimination on health.

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