Health and Wellness

How the gender pay gap affects women's mental health

Luis Alvarez

Tuesday is Equal Pay Day, the date until which women have to work to earn what men earned in the preceding year. But the gender wage gap doesn't just affect how much money women earn, it can also have a profound effect on mental health, experts say. 

Women make about 82 cents for every $1 earned by a man, according to the National Women's Law Center. And it's even more stark for most women of color: Black women make 62 cents and Latinx women make 54 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Native American women earn 57 cents for every dollar. Asian-American women make 90 cents for every dollar. 

"A lot of our self-esteem and self-confidence is derived from our work — after all, we spend a great deal of time and invest a lot of energy in the workplace," Kim Churches, chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women, a non-profit organization that advances equity for women and girls, tells CNBC Make It. "It's pretty upsetting to think that we're undervalued and underappreciated. And what better indication of that is there than our paychecks?"

Here are some of the psychological effects of the gender wage gap.

Making less money hurts

Experiencing the effects of the gender wage gap on a daily basis can be exhausting for women, and it can feel out of your control, Van Niel says.

"You're often frustrated, and that gets internalized, and sometimes leads to people feeling more depressed or certainly anxious," she says.

Women may also blame themselves for these negative circumstances, rather than realize that these are problems in the institution that need correcting, she says.

Indeed, research shows there's a link between the increased prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders in women and the higher percentage of psycho-social stressors present in women's lives, and those stressors include lower wages for the same work and disadvantaged social status, Maureen Sayres Van Niel, psychiatrist and president of the American Psychiatric Association Women's Caucus, tells CNBC Make It.

And a 2016 study from Columbia University that looked at the mental health consequences of gender wage gaps found that when women make the same amount or more than their male counterparts (who are equally qualified for their jobs), their likelihood of experiencing depression and anxiety are about the same. But when women make less money, they're 2.4 times more likely to experience depression and four times more likely to have anxiety.

In other words, this research showed that the discrimination and experiences of women that are "structurally embedded" in our society have a substantial impact on mental health, Jonathan Platt, study author and Post-doctoral Merit Fellow in Epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, tells CNBC Make It.

Doing more 'free' work hurts

Beyond, getting paid less for the same job, surveys show women tend to assume the bulk of household duties, which are unpaid, like cleaning, shopping for groceries, caring for children and other family members and managing schedules.

All of the "invisible" and unpaid labor that goes into running a household can add up: Women in the U.S. ages 15 to 64 spend 241 minutes per day on these tasks, while men only spent 145 minutes, according to the most recent data from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

"The expectation to do a lot more of the housework and childcare takes its toll in many different ways, and can be really can be really pernicious," Platt says. A 2019 study found that when mothers feel solely responsible for the household chores and their children, it strains their well-being, leads to feelings of emptiness and makes them feel less satisfied with their lives and relationships.

But it can also energize to action

Estimates suggest that it could take 200 years to close the pay gap at the current pace. So "the imperative now exists for our society to recognize this connection and work to provide institutional and structural competency changes that will improve the mental health of the women in this country," Van Niel says.

Luckily, there's more public attention being brought to the issue of unequal pay, Churches says. 

"Women from all fields and at all levels are expressing outrage when they discover they're being underpaid and that will also help bring about change," she says.

"Another benefit of that public awareness for individuals: Knowing that the pay gap is a problem all women encounter can help lessen the negative mental health effects."

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