Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Wage Gaps and the Increased Depression and Anxiety in Women

By Joel Miller posted 04-29-2019 18:40

The discussion around income disparity in the presidential primary races has taken on a new twist – one’s health, and in particular, one’s mental health.

We have known through several studies conducted over the last two decades that a significant motherhood penalty exists on wages and evaluations of workplace performance and competence. Even after statistically controlling for education, work experience, race, whether an individual works full- or part-time, and on a broad range of other human capital and occupational variables.

One Stanford University research study even sent out more than 1,200 fictitious résumés to employers in a large Northeastern city, and found that women applicants with children were significantly less likely to get hired and if hired would be paid a lower salary than male applicants with children. This all occurred despite the fact that the qualifications, workplace performances and other relevant characteristics of the fictitious job applicants were held constant and only their parental status varied.

A related study found that mothers were penalized on a host of measures, including perceived competence and recommended starting salary. Men were not penalized for, and sometimes benefited from, being a parent. In a subsequent audit study, it was found that actual employers discriminate against mothers when making evaluations that affect hiring, promotion, and salary decisions, but not against fathers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median woman’s earnings are 79 percent of the median income of men.

And now we know that the wage gap between American women and men is a significant reason why women have higher rates of depression and anxiety, according to a new study by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology. Their research revealed that women with lower incomes than men with similar levels of education and experience were about 2.5 times more likely to have major depression than men. But, women who had incomes similar to their male counterparts didn’t have a greater risk of depression than men.

The author’s findings show that some of the gender disparities in depression and anxiety are due to the effects of structural gender inequality in the workforce and beyond. The findings show that the social processes that sort women into certain jobs, compensate them less than equivalent male counterparts, and create gender disparities in domestic labor have material and psychosocial consequences.

The researchers looked at data gathered from more than 22,000 working adults, aged 30 to 65 over a one-year period. Overall, women were nearly twice as likely as men to have been diagnosed with depression in the past year. In addition to finding that women who earned less than men were far more likely to be depressed, the investigators also found that women had more than double the risk of “generalized anxiety disorder” in the past year.

Women who earned less than men had about a four times higher risk of anxiety disorder than men. The risk for women whose incomes were similar to their male counterparts was greatly decreased, the study showed. These findings suggest that women may be more likely to place the blame for their lower income on themselves, and not on gender discrimination.

It appears that if women internalize these negative experiences as reflective of inferior merit, rather than the result of discrimination, they may be at increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders. The findings also suggest that public policies must go beyond prohibiting overt gender discrimination, like sexual harassment.

The authors also highlighted that the findings went beyond whether just having lower incomes for women might simply be what is prompting higher risk of depression and anxiety. But the study concluded that while financial strain is a potential risk factor for the two mental health disorders, the trend held up even among men and women pairs who made substantial salaries.

It is clear based on several studies that discrimination plays a role in mental health. Moreover, greater attention to the fundamental mechanisms that perpetuate wage disparities is needed not only because it is unjust, but so that we may understand and be able to intervene to reduce subsequent mental health risks in women.

So on this Mother’s Day, let’s give moms and all women not only a beautiful day to remember, but a fair wage and salary they deserve.

It will not only be good policy, but the healthy thing to do without even having to go to the doctor.


Correll, J., Benard. S., (2007 March) Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 112, No. 5 pp. 1297-1339 The University of Chicago Press

Jonathan Platt, Seth Prins, Lisa Bates, Katherine Keyes. Unequal depression for equal work? How the wage gap explains gendered disparities in mood disorders. Social Science & Medicine, 2016; 149: 1 DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.11.056