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The Role of Gender Differences In The Workplace During Different Life Stages

The role of gender differences in the workplace during different life stages

Chiara Curatoli, Alberto Raggi, Matilde Leonardi

Everyone needs to stay in a healthy workplace!

Intrinsic and extrinsic feedback explain how intrinsic and extrinsic job satisfaction facets affect work motivation differently. Extrinsic facets are those factors related to the work context, such as company policies, salary, interpersonal relations, and pay. Instead, intrinsic factors are related to the work content, such as the work itself and feelings of achievement gained through advancement. These “motivating factors” are related to the job itself and are more likely to motivate employees to perform at their highest level. It is important to note that extrinsic factors are just as important as intrinsic ones since extrinsic motivation needs to be in place to prevent job dissatisfaction before satisfaction can exist. A healthy workplace is a place able to consider both and from a gender perspective to tailor an intervention to create a facilitating environment for all workers, considering their intrinsic differences and issues.

Mental health disorders in the workplace, such as depression and anxiety, have increasingly been recognised as a major problem in most countries. Different studies have found an association between the presence of mental health disorders and the rate of absenteeism and stress in the workplace. However, to the best of our knowledge, comprehensive investigations with a gender perspective about the occurrence of perceived anxiety, depression and related absenteeism in the workplace among women and men in different life stages are still scarce.

Workplace stressors constitute, in fact, significant determinants of workplace problems related to mental health, and both age and gender are important demographic characteristics that mediate the experience of stress.

Sadness, lethargy, negativity and mood changes are hallmarks of classical depression. Interestingly, the manifestations of depressive symptoms are different between women and men regarding perception, prevalence, and psychopathology, with consequently diverse outcomes in the workplace. For instance, women report more overt and somatic complaints, while men show fewer covert symptoms and cognitive complaints (e.g., less help-seeking behaviours and more extended periods to recover from a depressive episode). Moreover, some men express depression through frustration and anger, irritability, short temper, refusal to talk, overreaction to news and dissatisfaction.

The role of gender differences in the workplace during different life stages

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The sociologist Elder proposed the principle of ‘life span development’ (2003), acknowledging that development is a lifelong process. Conceptualising career course as divided into stages is a longstanding practice, and it is possible to distinguish four typical career phases: Early Adulthood, Young Adulthood, Adulthood and Middle Age. During these stages, males and females perceive different and unique stressors, with working women globally expressing more depressive and anxious symptoms than working men.

During the first two stages, Early Adulthood (age: late teens-20) and ‘Young Adulthood’ (age: 20-30), youth are completing their educations and experiencing their first occupations in most countries. Individuals are typically trying to establish long-term work and family roles, and some may be, in part, economically dependent on their parents.

The role of gender differences in the workplace during different life stages

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During these years, a relevant topic related to gender differences and barriers in workplaces addressed by scientific literature is related to the issue of menstrual management by women. Most women suffer in silence from severe menstrual cycle symptoms. Yet discussing this issue openly is still a taboo, including in the workplace, where the multiple challenges of women remain largely unaddressed (e.g., having the possibility to stay home from work during the menstrual period, have a wastebasket in the bathroom to throw away the sanitary pads). According to a Dutch study by Schoep and colleagues (2019), menstrual symptoms typically result in presentism, which means going to work despite being sick or for fear of losing a job, resulting in a loss of productivity and increased stress and anxiety among women. Menstruation has been largely ignored as a topic that needs to be discussed for its impact on women’s job performance and only recently appeared in policies. For example, in 2021, the UN Human Rights Council issued the first resolution on menstruation and management as a human right. Ways to address these challenges include giving women more flexibility at work when they have their period, period leave, and access to facilities at work. So considering women’s needs, including menstruality at work, must be recognised as part of existing human rights obligations and employers’ obligations to respect fundamental rights. It should not only be a voluntary commitment for employers.

These first two stages are followed by the stages of career establishment in Adulthood, defined as extending through to the late 30s and by ‘Middle Age’, in the mid-40s, during which individuals have traditionally reached a career maintenance phase, seeking to maintain their status at work.

Women also often face unique stressors at these ages, like combining multiple roles at work and in family life, assuming that women begin to have children and build a family.

However, the increasingly frequent prolonged job instability of the last decades has posed another social barrier for working women. Pregnancy and maternity are also highly debated topics in employment. Maternity is a period of transition beginning with prenatal bodily changes and progressing through postnatal lactation and is experienced by up to 66% of working women.

In Wheeler and colleagues’ study, primarily done in Western countries (2020), it was found that while some pregnant women reported positive experiences, many women described situations that ranged from challenging to potentially unlawful in the workplace, resulting in profound misunderstandings and national discrepancies at individual, employer and providers’ levels on the laws related to employment in pregnancy, safe employment responsibilities during pregnancy and the range of accommodations that allow productivity even during high-risk pregnancies. As a side note, women constitute a growing segment of the workforce, so understanding the challenges faced by women during this period and the need for more tailored and appropriate strategies should provide additional social support and increased job satisfaction among women.

The role of gender differences in the workplace during different life stages

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When the career stabilises, women often face other stressors such as lack of career progression, discrimination and stereotyping. Different studies report that discrimination in the workplace during midlife (age: 50-60) is more relevant for women due to the negative stereotypes against ‘older/ageing women’. Elder also states that during midlife, at the same career stage, sometimes men feel that women unfairly benefit from affirmative action policies and quotas designed to increase female representation.

Lack of career progresses is often a major source of work stress for women, the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ that reduces satisfaction and limits women’s career advancement to the top management level.

Also, prejudice and discrimination are more often sources of stress among female workers, with sexual harassment as a significant job stressor for those women working in some occupations traditionally considered for men.

The role of gender differences in the workplace during different life stages

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Remaining in a biopsychosocial perspective, also menopause is a significant issue that deserves to be discussed. As the working age increases, menopausal women are a large and economically relevant group in the workforce. Yet, their quality of life and needs in the workplace have often been neglected. Previous studies focused on the impact of menopausal symptoms on women’s work performance, which was primarily negative: poor concentration and memory, tiredness, feeling depressed, and reduced self-confidence are the typical manifested symptoms of a menopausal woman, which negatively correlates with perceived work ability.

During menopause, women could experience a phase of disadvantage compared to male colleagues as they are not considered in some aspects related to some physical changes.

Thus, supporting women in the workplace if they have symptoms or issues related to the changes due to menopause is critical.

Intrinsic and extrinsic factors need to be considered to explain how intrinsic and extrinsic job satisfaction affects work motivation differently. In order to fill the gender gap in the workplace, extrinsic structural inequities (e.g., lower pay, lack of career progress, discrimination and stereotyping, poor menstrual management, lack of facilitations during pregnancy or menopause) must be considered as barriers to women entering and advancing in leadership positions in the workplace. Yet, intervention in the intrinsic characteristics of successful working women, including self-awareness, self-respect, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-acceptance and resilience, might facilitate their success in obtaining and retaining leadership positions despite these barriers. Overall, as gender is an essential factor affecting job satisfaction, organisations should better understand the impact of organisational politics to improve job satisfaction among different gender and age groups.


Chiara Curatoli, Alberto Raggi, Matilde Leonardi

Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Carlo Besta (Milan, Italy)



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