Any woman in a male-dominated field can tell you stories of comments they’ve gotten along the lines of “Oh, it must be hard to be the only girl” or “Wow, you’re in [insert field here], you must be so smart”. Women in these jobs often have a feeling that they don’t belong in their own careers. Feeling like you don’t belong somewhere can cause our fight-or-flight mechanisms to kick in, which causes stress. Furthermore, this can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. This isn’t talked about enough and what better time to talk about it than Mental Health Week?
Women in STEM and Mental Health
written by: alicen ricard
May 7-13, 2018 is Mental Health Week and the Canadian Mental Health Association has a great #GetLoud campaign on Twitter to show what mental health really is, and to take away some of the stigma.
Women have so much pressure to excel in these fields because they feel like they have to be better than the men to prove they’re “worthy” of being there. This kind of thinking leads to imposter syndrome. This feeling out of place also leads to stress. Stress can alter the production of oligodendrocytes in the brain which can lead to many stress-related disorders—one of those being anxiety. Stress and anxiety are already high in STEM fields, particularly in things such as med school, without the added pressure of being a “minority” in one of these fields. Anxiety is an adaptive function of the brain to protect the individual from danger. The more one worries, the less likely they are to do dangerous things. That was fine when it comes to protecting ourselves from things in nature that could harm us, but we shouldn’t have to feel this way about day to day life and our careers.
Women in STEM fields are more likely to suffer from depression than men are. In this study 7.2% of women in life-physical-social sciences reported at least one bout of depression in the year the study was performed versus 2.3% of men. 11.1% of women reported depression in engineering-architecture-surveying versus 3.3% of men. In mathematics and computer science, 10.4% of women reported versus 4.6% of men. Imagine all the innovative ideas these women could be having if they weren't experiencing these higher levels of stress?
This is why self-care is so important, even if it means making tough decisions or disappointing people, for your own well-being. Learning your limits and when you can’t take on anymore projects or tasks, is so important. We live in a society where we all strive for perfection, and having the pressure of being in a career where you feel like you have to prove yourself doesn’t help. Something we can all learn is the words “good enough”. Being able to do a good job without sacrificing your mental health is better overall than reaching perfection with detriment to your health. No one is actually going to look down on you for taking care of yourself. After all, if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t get anything else done.
Even further than what we can do for ourselves, is what we can do as a society. The more we close the gender gap and the more women succeed in STEM careers, the less pressure they will feel as the "only women" in those fields. Less pressure could lead to less stress and in the long run to less mental health issues in women in STEM, overall. We’re getting there but we’re not quite there yet.