In Scandinavia, HighLevel Women Experience More Stress at Work

The Scandinavian countries are often held up as the most progressive countries in Europe for workplace gender equality. But a new study suggests that those countries rate worse than the rest of Europe when it comes to workplace stress among professional women.

Almost universally, the highest occupational class was most exposed to hazards, but this effect was largest in Scandinavia.

The researchers, who are based in Spain and Sweden, expected to find that strong national policies for employment and social protection correlated with low perceived exposure to gender-related psychosocial hazards, writes first author Javier Campos-Serna of the Center for Research in Occupational Health at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, in an e-mail to Science Careers. If that were true, then the Scandinavian region would show the least gender inequality, followed by the Continental and Anglo-Saxon regions, Southern Europe, and then Eastern Europe. The researchers also expected gender inequality to be most pronounced in the lower occupational classes.

Across Europe, women were more exposed than men to almost all types of psychosocial hazards. But the gender differences—as measured by the ratio of the prevalence of women’s exposure relative to men’s—were greatest in the Scandinavian countries. Almost universally, the highest occupational class was most exposed to hazards, but this effect was largest in Scandinavia. Scandinavia also showed the greatest differences among occupational classes. “This phenomenon reminds us … of the Greek myth of the flight of Icarus,” Campos-Serna writes by e-mail. For those not up on their Greek mythology, Icarus died when his wings melted because he flew too close to the sun.

“Contrarily to what we initially hypothesized, gender inequalities … were not lower in those welfare state regimes with greater levels of wealth redistribution and more universal policies for social protection nor, more specifically, among the most privileged … occupational social classes,” Campos-Serna writes. Why? One possible explanation—proposed by Science Careers, not the researchers—is that perceived exposure to psychosocial hazards in the highest occupational classes is higher among women in Scandinavia simply because more women are working in such positions there than elsewhere. In this interpretation, women in other regions encounter those hazards less frequently because they less often hold jobs traditionally held by men. There could also be some backlash against the hiring of women in such jobs.

Regardless of the explanation, the study makes it clear that even in Europe’s most progressive areas there is still work to do before women will be truly equal in higher occupational roles.

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