You don’t need yet another set of statistics about how stressful it is to work as a lawyer—you know all about it; hell, you live it.
But if you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be stressed and your level of stress is likely to be heightened above that of your male counterparts. This tendency to experience more and higher levels of stress means that women often experience harsher physical and mental side effects.
The stress-related symptoms that women report more than men are fatigue, nervousness and anxiety, depression, stomachaches, headaches, and hypertension. Scientists are still researching physiological reasons that women and men react to stress differently, and so far believe it has to do with differing hormone levels. But why exactly are women feeling stress more often and more intensely in the first place?
Though the gender wage gap exists in all professions, it can be especially egregious in some law firms. Even female partners make substantially less than male partners—a 2015 survey had female equity partners’ salary lagging almost $95,000 behind that of male partners. Though this disparity can often be traced to men’s ability to tap into the old boys’ network to win clients, women who bring in more business than their male counterparts still face blatantly unequal pay.
A 2016 Columbia University study linked higher depression and anxiety levels in women to the gender pay gap. The stress caused by unequal pay was apparent even among high-earning women, meaning that the negative consequences of simply earning a low income was not the issue, but structural inequality was.
Extra Home and Family Responsibilities
A universal cause of stress for women lawyers is the added burden of shouldering the majority of childcare and cleaning responsibilities. Indeed, these issues are stressful for women regardless of profession, but lawyers, with their long hours and fast-paced work lives, can suffer quite acutely in this area.
Women who are caught in the sandwich generation—meaning they are both raising children and caring for aging relatives while working—are particularly stressed. 66% of caregivers are women, and studies show that even when men act as caretakers, they spend approximately 50% less time providing assistance than women do.
Women lawyers continue to face widespread gender bias. Aside from the lower pay, less prestigious assignments, and lack of promotions that typically define a woman’s law career, there are other issues women must contend with in an office setting that men rarely or never have to consider. Women lawyers report routinely being mistaken for secretaries or legal assistants, and are often expected to do office housework and party planning. They report being interrupted in meetings, penalized for assertiveness while also being penalized for “not speaking up,” and generally walking a daily tightrope of acceptable behaviors while being expected not to react to sexist comments and expectations.
How to Combat the Effects of Stress
It’s impossible to avoid all stressors at work or at home, so taking steps to deal with and lessen the effects is imperative for any woman looking to continue her career while staying healthy and sane.
Try some of these methods:
- In the moment
- Deep breathing—Taking slow, deep breaths provides your brain with more oxygen and helps your body to relax.
- Stretching—Stretching, like the movements associated with yoga, relaxes muscles, lessens tension, and can lower blood pressure.
- Meditation—Meditation can improve anxiety symptoms, calm the mind, and lower blood pressure.
- Long-term habits to develop
- Sleep—You need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. (This will not be possible every night for most lawyers, but make it a priority.)
- Eat right—Avoid overeating and consuming too many high-fat, high-sugar foods when you’re feeling angry or otherwise emotional. Focus on keeping your diet as plant-rich as possible, and eat foods full of B vitamins, which helps relieve stress. Bananas, fish, avocados, leafy green vegetables, and chicken all contain vitamin B.
- Exercise—Physical activity boosts endorphins, which can help improve your mood. Moving will also benefit your health in other ways we’re sure you’re familiar with, as well as keep your weight down.
- Get professional help—Talking to a counselor can not only give you an opportunity to unburden yourself to a neutral party, but help you create strategies to combat stress. Successful, driven people often see needing a mental health professional as a weakness, but of course it is not. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of physical health.
- Mindfulness helps you become more aware of your thoughts and what’s happening with your body so you can head off any stress reactions as early as possible, as well as consciously relax yourself.
- Mindfulness reduces stress and helps future stressors have less impact.
Identify what causes you stress and what strategies may work for you to combat it. Over the next month, add stress-relieving activities—deep breathing, meditation, etc.—and generally healthy habits, such as sleep hygiene, dietary changes, and regular exercise. Consider seeing a counselor if you feel you need further assistance.