Jen could never understand why her job always seemed so much more upsetting than her husband’s. It didn’t even matter what job it was, or what else was going on in their lives. She and Dave both had high-level, high-pressure careers in banking. But while her bad days had her reeling on the couch or shedding long, drawn-out tears over dinner, his were defined by 10-minute outbursts after which he’d settle in before the television for professional sports and a few-too-many glasses of scotch. The end.
The scene at Jen and Dave’s isn’t especially unusual. According to a number of recent studies, women and men experience, and respond to, conflicts at work in very different ways. First, women tend to feel conflict more deeply. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that women consistently report higher levels of work stress, tension, and frustration than men. More than men, they are inclined to feel underappreciated and underpaid. An Australian study, meanwhile, found that while women respond to such work-related conflict and stress by working harder, men are more inclined to call in sick or otherwise “check out.”
In 2000, research conducted by Shelley Taylor and her colleagues in the health psychology department at the University of California first described this as women’s tendency to have a “tend and befriend” response to conflict and stress versus men’s typical “fight or flight” response. The seminal study introduced the idea that the differences in how the sexes cope with stress aren’t merely emotional but biological as well. Stressed-out women, they wrote in a study published in Psychological Review, are likely to seek social support because female stress activates the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with female reproduction and the desire to form and maintain attachments. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to use substances to cope.
Of course, as the number of high-powered, and high-earning, women in the workforce rises, so do women’s collective stress levels. More families than ever before rely on the woman’s income at least in part—on average, working women contribute to 47 percent of their family’s earnings, compared with 38 percent in 1988, according to research conducted at the University of New Hampshire. But although women are contributing to the family pot more significantly than ever before, their domestic responsibilities are not shrinking; studies show, for example, that working women still do more housework than men. That is one factor Jen pointed out to me: “Dave might be able to park himself in front of the TV and zone out,” she said, “but I have laundry to do.”
Chronic stress can have physical implications, of course, especially if trouble at work leads to women clocking in more hours, as it often does. When Leslie, who worked as a buyer for a large department store, began to hear that her supervisor was blaming the season’s poor returns exclusively on her, she voluntarily upped her weekly hours from 45 to 60. Nights found her rushing through dinner with her family so that she could hop online to research new brands and competitors’ programs. She barely had time to sleep—not that she could, really. In addition to constant daytime anxiety she had developed a nagging case of insomnia. “I just felt like everything was slipping out from underneath me,” Leslie told me. “Based on rumors, I had already jumped ahead five months in my mind, and was obsessed with the inevitability of having to tell my family and friends I’d been fired. I was working harder, but I was also obsessing more, which gave me absolutely no advantage. And, of course, I was basically ignoring my husband and kids.” Eventually, she found a new job. When she told the store she was leaving, they were stunned. “They actually counter-offered and begged me to stay, and I wondered, had I just been making it all up?” she remembered. “Maybe I had. But by that time, I had to get out of there. I no longer associated that job with anything except unbearable levels of stress.”
Some studies suggest that work-related anxiety isn’t felt just by the women actually experiencing it but, in some cases, the entire office as well—or, at least, that’s the perception. A 2012 study published in the Academy of Management Perspectives concluded that most employees—male and female—believe that work conflict between two women has more negative implications than conflict between two men or between a man and a woman. One such negative implication: a decline in morale throughout the office. Researchers asked participants to read a scenario consisting of a hypothetical story about two managers who worked at a consulting firm and the details of a disagreement they had. In two versions, the protagonists were called Adam and Steve or Adam and Sarah. In the last instance, they were called Sarah and Anne. All other details were the same. Overwhelmingly, the study participants said there would be more negative long-term implications from the Sarah and Anne dispute than from either of the others, with a 15 percent less likelihood that Sarah and Anne would ever be able to repair their relationship. This, researchers suggested, was due to the “unfortunate tendency in mainstream society to characterize female interactions as being based on conflict and jealousy, whereas male conflict is more natural and healthy.” The upshot: in real life, such bias against female-female conflict may affect hiring and promotions for women if managers worry that putting two women together may spell trouble later on. It may also result in women feeling less able to speak up for themselves, with the fear of being perceived as “catty.”
Tara, one of the riding instructors at an upstate New York equestrian center, recalled the argument she got into with another instructor, whom I’ll call Erin. After Tara began to sense Erin’s annoyance with her, she took extra care to get out of the stalls promptly after one of her lessons ended and before Erin’s began. She even cleaned Erin’s horse’s stall when she had extra time, just to show her that she wanted to get along. But when Erin confronted her about some slight one day in front of a group of clients—“I’m not even sure what it was about,” Tara told me later—their boss reprimanded them both. “Then he changed my schedule, and hers too, and eventually I realized that I no longer shared a shift with any women. But since most of the instructors were women, my hours were drastically cut.”
In talking with Dave about his office conflicts, Jen began to wonder if her own struggles were real or perceived. Was she causing her own angst? Or did she, like everyone else, just perceive a greater problem than was really there? “Eventually, I realized they were probably a bit of both—real and perceived,” she said. “That I was reading too much into some situations, but that I also had reason to suspect that people might be plotting against me.” She made a decision to keep her personal life out of the office: no gossip or venting, and doing her best to get her work done so that no one had anything to complain about. “I realized that some conflicts might just be a result of someone else having a bad day,” she said. “And that just isn’t my problem unless, of course, I make it my problem.” Dave’s response? “Sounds good, babe.”