Disturbing Study Shows How Anxiety Can Hurt Women’s Careers
5:34 pm, June 5th | by Amy Tennery
It sounds like good news, a kind of silver lining for those of us who get the cold sweats from a spelling error. And it is, to an extent. A study from Michigan State University asked a group of college students to complete a series of tasks, while their brain activity was tracked with an electrode cap. The study found that women who struggle with anxiety problems tended to show more brain activity, especially after making a mistake. The good news? This is, to an extent, a coping mechanism; it’s the brain’s way of frantically trying to compensate for an error. The anxious brain has a greater sense of urgency, so to speak. The bad news? It’s tough to turn off — and the hard-working brains then grow easily distracted, making subsequent tasks even harder to accomplish.
But the really freaky part about this? The study found no similar brain behavior among “high anxiety” men. And while men and women performed equally well on the “simple” tasks, the study showed that women prone to anxiety problems had higher brain activity completing those — and their performance suffered in tougher portions of the test in ways that anxiety-riddled dudes’ didn’t.
Bottom line: Anxious women may actually be worse test-takers than anxious men. And this could have far-reaching implications for academia — and could explain why some women bail on fields in which they’re underrepresented.
Consider, for example, the oft-cited claim that lack of confidence keeps women out of STEM careers. Sure, it’s kind of a B.S. dis, and to cite it as the only problem obscures larger issues of discrimination and intimidation within the field. But with stats that show girls’ confidence in math and science dropping precipitously between 6th grade and 10th grade, it’s hard not to wonder whether this confidence-anxiety spectrum is playing a bigger role than many think.
“As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school,” study leader Jason Moser noted in a written release. Ugh. “Thinking too much”? I’m trying my hardest not to roll my eyes. But if we can move past the old “poor ladybrain can’t think so good” trope, there’s something of value here. Anxiety problems like OCD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder can be more damaging to women’s careers than men’s.
“We already know that anxious kids – and especially anxious girls – have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math,” Moser added.
To boil this down to “women freak out more” isn’t fair — nor is it accurate. But the Michigan study shows that we may need to rethink how we approach women, mental health and careers.
[H/T Michigan Radio]