The Gender Gap You Haven't Heard About

In Status: Stressed, Refinery29 is teaming up with Secret, the expert in stress sweat, to have an honest, passionate conversation about the role of stress in the lives of young women today. Knowing we all feel the pressure, we've set out to discover how we can make stress work for — not just against — us.

Our fast-paced world has made us all too familiar with feelings of stress and anxiety — and when we say “us,” we mean women. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, we are 8% more likely than men to report having a great deal of stress in our lives and 10% more of us say our stress levels have increased over the past five years.

While that’s not to say our brothers, boyfriends, and guy friends don’t feel the pressure, too, a number of major anxiety-inducers seem to disproportionately affect women — hence why it’s vitally important to identify these triggers, then make adjustments before they burn us out.

So whether you’re stress sweating over student loans or ruminating over a missed promotion, here’s how to start channeling what keeps you up at night into what gets you going in the morning.
Advertisement
ILLUSTRATED BY Anna Sudit.
Workplace Sexism
Women report higher levels of work stress than men as a result of feeling underappreciated, being underpaid, and getting fewer opportunities to advance, another survey from the American Psychological Association shows. “Men are presumed competent, but women have to prove it,” says Cynthia Calvert, an expert in family responsibilities discrimination law and president of Workforce21C. That means we’re less likely than our male coworkers to get the benefit of the doubt when we, say, miss a deadline or are looking to make an internal shift.

The pressure to constantly make a good impression adds another unique layer of stress for women at work. “If you’re too sweet and caring, you [seem] incompetent, but if you’re too competent, you’re perceived as not being very warm or nice,” says Calvert. Sound familiar? Although organizational solutions are key and must be fought for, these aren’t likely to come immediately. So while that’s in motion, try to cultivate strong relationships and build up an internal network. “Don’t be afraid to ask for advice,” says Calvert. “People find it flattering, and having a mentor at work helps us feel less isolated and better supported in our career goals.”
ILLUSTRATED BY Anna Sudit.
Fertility
We all know it takes two to make a baby, but the expectations around having children often don't impact men and women equally. “Becoming a mother and getting pregnant is so much a part of the female identity in our culture,” says Jean Twenge, PhD, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant. “And because it happens to our bodies, we feel more responsible when it doesn’t happen.”

The weight of this responsibility is even greater when women are told their stress could be hurting their chances of conceiving. “When I was struggling to get pregnant, I was so worried that the stress of my career, my diet and health, and my emotional and mental state were affecting my [chances of] having a baby,” says Kelly, 35. “People's comments and ‘suggestions’ only made this worse.”

The good news: “Research on stress and fertility is actually very mixed and weak,” says Twenge. “Stressing about conceiving is normal, and that type of stress is unlikely to prevent conception.”

Regardless of its effect on getting pregnant, however, it never feels good to fret. To release the pressure, try expressing your feelings in a journal or on an app. Research shows putting pen to paper (or fingers to screen) can reduce the negative physical and mental effects of stress by helping us organize our thoughts and find meaning in difficult situations.
ILLUSTRATED BY Anna Sudit.
Body Image
As many as 69% of women say they've felt judged based on their bodies and 42% of women feel worse about their bodies because of social media, according to a recent survey of 1,100 women between 18 and 54.

“It’s genuinely difficult to open up Instagram every day and compare yourself to women whose lives look perfect,” says Megan, 30. “The perfect engagement ring, perfect body, perfect outfit, perfect coffee table and coffee moment — I never look at Instagram and feel good about myself.”

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of comparison and competition. “The brain has five times more negative than positive circuits, and we pay a lot more attention to potential threats in our environment than to rewards,” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, author of The Sharp Solution and Stressaholic. If not kept in check, this negativity quickly becomes utterly exhausting.

The first step? Surround yourself with supportive friends and cut yourself some slack. When other people in our social network appreciate us, we tend to be less judgmental of ourselves. And if social media seems to have taken on an outsize importance in your life, consider a short-term digital detox. “Engaging with topics, hobbies, and friendships that inspire us not only helps us de-stress but also makes life feel richer and more fulfilling,” says Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
ILLUSTRATED BY Anna Sudit.
Getting Anything & Everything Done
The battle for work-life balance is never-ending — and no one knows this better than women. We’re now the primary or sole breadwinners in four out of 10 households, plus we continue to shoulder more household and childcare responsibilities than men.

“I rarely make time for myself. My weekends ‘off’ are spent buying food and diapers, doing laundry, cleaning the house, and playing with my family,” says Kelly, 34, the mother of 9-month-old twins. “If I don’t get dinner on the table I feel like I’m letting my family down, even though I know they don’t really mind. My husband is better at just letting things go.”

Regardless of whether you have children, we’re all familiar with spreading ourselves too thin. “The fact that we have so many opportunities to ‘have it all’ can be a double-edged sword,” says Hanna. “As soon as we perceive that we don't have enough — whether it be time, energy, money, or the like — our brains shift into conservation mode, which includes triggering stress hormones that can be toxic to our long-term health if not managed with adequate periods of recovery and self-care,” says Hanna.

Next time you fill out your calendar and to-do list, pencil in some very specific R & R. Think: “Read the second chapter of my book” or “enjoy a latte at that new coffee shop.” “The less ambiguous you are, the easier it will be to hold yourself accountable and make it happen,” says Hanna.

ILLUSTRATED BY Anna Sudit.
Finances
Women are more likely to take out student loans than men, therefor beginning our careers in the hole. We also have a harder time paying them back thanks to the gender pay gap. “Women still make 79 cents to a man’s dollar, which, over the course of a lifetime, translates into a very different financial situation — less retirement, less disposable income, and more anxiety about money,” says Kate Levinson, PhD, author of Emotional Currency: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Healthy Relationship With Money. It’s no surprise that 87% of women ages 18 to 34 find money and finances stressful.

The answer, however, is not to avoid checking your bank balance. “Engaging in our financial lives actually reduces anxiety,” says Levinson. “It’s a relief to know what the real situation is, because then we can do something about it.” Once you know the story, download a money-manager app like Mint to keep you organized, and seek advice from a debt counselor and even your friends. “Money is this taboo topic we’re not supposed to talk about with other people, but it’s stressful not to have the benefit of learning the way we usually learn from conversation,” says Levinson. “Speaking with other people — professionals or not — allows us to figure out what we’re actually dealing with, which makes our situations feel more manageable.”
Advertisement