I built my career being the person who turned around failing operations and projects. My jobs were really hard work and extremely stressful. It wasn’t until I wrote my article on men and work hours that I really started questioning why I (and the other women in the office) stayed in there and kept working while the men eventually gave up and left. In my article I wrote that men have a limit on the number of hours they really work and the amount of stress they could handle.
After doing a little research I learned that my experiences reflect how men and women handle stress differently.
When it comes to handling stress the old thought was that people (men and women) will do one of two things – stay in there and keep fighting or take flight by running away. According to the stereotypes real men are tough – we expect real men to stay in there and keep on fighting to reach their objective. But in my experience, as the stress level increases, men one-by-one start taking flight. Meanwhile I am still at work pressing on. So, does this mean I am tougher than all the men in the company? Does this mean I am the manliest of men?
No. It means I am a woman.
As it turns out the fight or flight concept only applies to men.
In July 2000 Shelley Taylor PhD. published a paper in which she coined a term “tend and befriend” to describe how women handle stress. Initially women may have the fight-or-flight response but then our “tend-and-befriend” response kicks in. Under stress women take care of themselves and those who are dependent upon them such as babies, children, the sick and the elderly. We then befriend others to form alliances. It is a survival technique.
This makes sense especially when you think about maternal instinct. Under stress women can’t take flight and leave our babies unattended and unprotected. We have to stay in there. So, we talk to other women in our friendship alliance about what we are feeling and get the support we need to deal with the stress. Talking helps us release stress.
The reason for our different response is due to the hormone oxytocin which is more prevalent in females especially during childbirth. (I found it funny that before I did any research that I wrote in my notes for this article that women always joke that we are better at stress because men could never handle childbirth. The research finally bears out what we have known all along.)
Learning about tend and befriend helped me understand what I do and feel during a crisis. When my workplace is under pressure I always felt that if I left, that if I didn’t stay in there and fight then I would be abandoning my colleagues and workplace. This was my nurturing instinct kicking in. But instead of tending to children or the elderly, I tended to my male colleagues.
A few years ago when my youngest daughter was barely 18, I was working long hours an extremely stressful construction project. I felt bad for leaving her on her own too much but she laughed and told me the men needed my attention more than she did. After that we joked about how better my young adult daughters were at managing stress than the manly-men I worked with on the construction site.
We have finally proven that in a crisis our workplaces need a woman in charge! This makes all those stressful situations our workplaces go through golden opportunities for us. After the men take flight and we are “the last man standing,” we can assert ourselves, take over the project and get it done!
I built my career taking advantage of these situations. Even when some gender biases kept pushing me aside so a manly-man could take over, I hung in there and waited. In short order the stress got the best of him and I reasserted myself to finish the work. Remember – no one remembers who started a project, but they do remember who finished it.
This female strength however comes with a WARNING. Remember a weakness is a strength taken to an extreme. What that means for women is that in times of stress we can become too self-sacrificing, we can spend too much time at work, we can run ourselves ragged.
All I can say is: Been there, done that, many times. For me, it is hard to not take on too much. I have a lot of drive so it is hard for me to back off on my goals and what I want to accomplish, even though the men have all hit their limits and taken flight. I still struggle with finding the balance.
Just remember that if you find yourself alone at work several nights a week, then you are out of balance. Take a lesson from your male colleagues. They know their limits and they apply them. Even when we are struggling to balance work and family we can follow men’s example. When they are a single dad and they have a stressful conflict, they leave work to take care of their family responsibilities. They just do it and don’t feel guilty!
For me it’s nice to know that I am not a manly man but just a strong woman. I am going to add stress to my list of male and female balancing characteristics. Men have Stress Limits while women have Stress Endurance. The balance for women is to know that we don’t have to keep increasing our endurance – we don’t have to run the stress marathon when a 10k is far enough!
Empowered Women Can be Counted on to Take Charge When Times are Tough!