There is no doubt that STEM women are coping with an undercurrent of condescension in the workplace and that societal norms are increasing the pressure. This is causing a stress response, as you can imagine, but is it the good or the bad kind of stress?
Let’s find out.
Stress: What exactly is it?
Stress is an adaptive response to perceived threats. It’s how the body reacts to these situations. Anxiety is stress that lingers after the immediate threat is gone; it’s feelings such as embarrassment, fear or worry.
Fight-or-flight is a physiological response evolved in human beings to help us navigate a wild, dangerous and unpredictable world. When faced with imminent danger, like a pouncing tiger, our bodies have evolved an automatic reaction to help us react fast. Stress hormones are released, the heart beats harder and faster, breathing becomes rapid and muscles tense, ready for action.
This automatic response prepares our bodies for possible actions: fight or flight! From the perspective of evolutionary adaptation, it’s in our best interests NOT to distinguish between life-threatening and non-life-threatening dangers. Act first, think later. In the African wilds in which early humans roamed, the consequence of under-reacting could mean death.
Stress: Good during lion attack, less good during daily life
In modern life, we don’t have to worry much about attacks from lions, tigers or bears. But adaptive mechanisms are still very much a part of our brain’s biology.
The flight-or-flight response is intended to be short-term. Unfortunately, stress is a daily part of modern life, triggering a physiological response that’s actually detrimental to health over the long term. Repeated and long-term releases of the stress hormone cortisol cause changes in brain structure that leave individuals more susceptible to anxiety and mood disorders, including depression. When exposed to long-term stressors, the brain structure called the hippocampus shrinks, affecting one’s short-term memory and ability to learn.
To me, one of the scariest effects of stress is that our telomeres unravel. Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Without the coating, shoelaces become frayed until they can no longer do their job. Without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can’t do their job.
These physical stress responses can unfortunately run at a constant low level of activation in people who are made to feel like they don’t belong or aren’t good enough – such as women in STEM. It’s that darned undercurrent of condescension rearing its ugly head!
Stress: My take on what it all means
My personal opinion is this. Stress is what is making 50% of women leave their STEM careers around the mid point.
About 15-20 years in, women are taking stock and not liking what they find.
They are experiencing headaches, sleep issues or digestive issues. One 35 year-old engineer I work with has already been to see her doctor because of chest pain.
The stress of the job and, more importantly, the work environment, has taken its toll on women physically and they are saying “screw this, it’s not worth it!” and they are leaving their STEM careers.
Next week, I promise to stop admiring the problem. The focus will shift to what on earth can we do about it.
Leaving you with this from the lighter side: “Today I will live in the moment.” Until the moment is unpleasant and then I will eat a cookie.