Women May Be Better Than Men At Stressful Jobs

Despite all talk about gender equality, we know that men and women differ on a purely physical level which makes one gender or the other more suited for particular tasks. Men, for instance, have more muscle tissue, bigger lungs and bigger hearts, which makes them better suited than women in general for work requiring physical exertion. They are also said to be better at spatial orientation, while women are better communicators and are better suited for work that needs a touch of empathy. One other thing that science has suggested is that women are more unwilling to take risks than men but a study reviewing 28 published research studies on the topic actually revealed that this might not be the case, at least not for every single woman.

Busy stressed business womanSo, how about behavior under stress? Perhaps we believe that men should be better suited to react to stressful situations because evolutionarily they were the ones dealing with outside threats, they were the ones burdened with feeding the tribe… Not so, in fact. In hunter-gatherer societies it was the gatherer part, who were women, that contributed most of the food for the community, not the beast-hunting men. Back to modern times, a recent study has discovered somewhat surprisingly, perhaps more for men than for women, that we do better under stress than men. The key factor in this difference is empathy.

The focus of the authors was to see how stress, being as pervasive as it is today, affects our self-other distinction, the extent to which we are conscious of both ourselves (our needs and emotions) and others (their needs and emotions). In other words, the study sought to see how stress may affect our acknowledgement and interactions with others. The researchers initially had suggested that stress would reduce this distinction, essentially turning us into egotists, at least for a time, because under stress the brain shuts down any thought about anyone else and focuses on “saving” its owner. Indeed, they found this was true but only for the male participants in the experiment. Women, on the contrary, demonstrated enhanced self-other distinction under stress, that is, they became more empathic, not more egotistic.

Fascinating as these results may be, the scientists still don’t know what the reason is for them. One of the authors suggested that it’s women’s better social skills that are responsible. We are more aware that when we need help we have to communicate this, so we are better tuned in to others who might needs help, even if we’re stressed. There’s ground for speculation, so let’s throw in some. How about motherhood? When we become mothers we get supertuned in to the mind and emotions of at least one other human being and we also learn to keep our heads cool in a crisis. Of course, this isn’t a universal rule, few rules are, but surely a lot of mothers will recognize the feeling: you may be shocked, you may be scared, but you can’t afford to freak out until the crisis — broken arm, cut on the head, choking incident, allergic reaction, etc. — has been dealt with.

Does this make women, especially mothers, better suited for jobs that are inherently stressful? This may well be the case, especially in jobs that require team work under stress, and the thought might be worth considering by employers who have been avoiding female job candidates with kids assuming they wouldn’t be up to the job.