Women in Higher Education: Exploring Stressful Workplace Factors and Coping Strategies

The following is an excerpt from "Women in Higher Education: Exploring Stressful Workplace Factors and Coping Strategies," originally published in volume 11, issue 1 of the NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education.

For women administrators in higher education, workplace factors like managing multiple roles; work bleeding into personal life; issues with leadership; discrimination and marginalization; and role insufficiency (i.e., ambiguity in work roles and reduced sense of control) contribute to increased workplace stress. Individual coping responses are often determined by how stressors are perceived indicating whether an individual will effectively or ineffectively manage a stressor. The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between stress and health risk among women in administrative roles in higher education with a particular focus on coping strategies employed. The results suggest that women administrators are employing effective strategies when dealing with daily work stressors and have developed a degree of learned resourcefulness; however, health data indicate long-term potential for mental health issues. Further results suggest a dichotomous view of the role of leadership as both a cause of stress and a strategy for effectively managing stress.

Historically, higher education institutions have been touted as desirable places to work; however, research suggests that university employees are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress (Gillespie, Walsh, Winefield, Dua, & Stough, 2001; Winefield, Gillespie, Stough, Dua, & Hapuararchchi, 2002). Changing workplace dynamics, management of unique and challenging student issues, and changes in the higher education marketplace have adjusted the expectations and workload for higher education practitioners (Gillespie et al., 2001). Increased work stress can have dangerous consequences, particularly if work stress becomes chronic. Chronic work stress occurs when workplace factors result in frequent stress, which taxes coping resources and can lead to job dissatisfaction and poor health outcomes (Hakanen, Schaufeli, & Ahola, 2008; Karasek, Collins, Clays, Bortkiewicz, & Ferrario, 2010; Kivimäki et al., 2002). Effective coping strategies are imperative, particularly for women, as chronic stress increases long term risks for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke, the leading causes of death for women in the United States (Carson et al., 2009; Saleh & Connell, 2007; World Health Organization [WHO], 1992). Although vocational research is rich with information on the association of work stress with health outcomes for professionals in a variety of fields, there is a paucity of research on this topic in the higher education literature. This study sought to fill a gap in the literature by answering the following questions: (a) Is there a relationship between stress and health risk for women administrators in higher education? (b) What workplace factors are indicated as most stressful and what coping strategies are employed?


Research on women’s experiences in the workforce has led to scholarly inquiry about the impacts of occupational stress and coping on health outcomes (Bacchus, 2008; Everett, Camille Hall, & Hamilton-Mason, 2010; Lundberg & Frankenhaeuser, 1999; Sorensen & Verbrugge, 1987; Vagg & Spielberger, 1998). As women’s roles have evolved, so too have opportunities for advancement. National movements of the 1960s and 1970s marked a shift in the number of women in the workforce. From the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the development of the National Organization of Women to changes in discriminatory statutes related to gender in education, women continue to make strides in the workplace (May, 2009).

As of 2014, women made up 52% of professional-level positions across the United States (Warner, 2014). Women from diverse backgrounds have made significant strides, although many familiar barriers continue to exist including gaps in pay and experiences with dis- criminatory policies and behaviors (Hegewisch, Deitch, & Murphy, 2011; Wright, 1991). Universities have seen similar trends. A growing number of women are pursuing adminis- trative roles in higher education settings. Sixty-four percent of those in educational admin- istration in the United States are women, and among universities, women make up 54% of those in administrative/managerial/executive positions (NCES, 2010). The increasing pre- sence of women in these roles demonstrates the continued growth in opportunity in the field. Status quo policies and systems, shifting role expectations, and economic and market drive will potentially increase stress and role expectations. Additionally, as women seek to balance their roles both in the workplace and at home, the workplace factors that have the potential for increasing stress and the relationship of such stress to long-term health outcomes are important considerations.

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