Why female CEOs are more depressed—and how we can change that

Recently, a friend probed my reaction to a University of Texas study that found higher rates of depression among executive women compared to their male counterparts. As a woman CEO and tech entrepreneur, my off-the-cuff assessment: “No mystery there. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”

My friend was stunned but interested in what I meant. So I tried to dig deeper.

It comes down to this: a woman at the pinnacle of a company likely has few other peers or role models. Therefore, there can be an intense external and internal scrutiny of her style, actions, and accomplishments. A man may fight to get to the top, but he isn’t questioned and criticized at every turn once there. A woman has to show up and “re-earn” her position every day. It’s exhausting. And, not surprisingly, it might lead to depression.

There is an additional complication. Mary Catherine Bateson asserted in her book, Composing a Life that women generally measure their success along several relatively equally weighted dimensions. While they aren’t the same for every woman, they tend to fall along the lines of career, spouse, children, home, health, friendships, and self-development. This rings true for me.

I can close a great deal on Tuesday, but if I forget to send a birthday card to a friend, or there is no healthy food in my refrigerator when I get home, my celebration of the business success is not as sweet.

As an example of how much my impossible set of goals and responsibilities can collide: two few years into running my startup The Grommet, I was scheduled to undergo a minor surgical procedure that required general anesthesia. Believe it or not, I genuinely looked forward to being knocked out because I knew that it would, at least for time, give me a break from my responsibilities.

This ridiculous aspiration to “close the deal in San Francisco while also personally picking out fresh produce in Boston” is hard to fix. If women hold themselves to impossible standards of success across mutually exclusive dimensions, this issue will take decades to resolve as it resides deep in an individual woman’s psyche and domestic situation.

However, fixing the issue of a lack of role models and providing a greater representation of women leaders is within reach and in everyone’s best interests. Research resoundingly shows higher corporate growth and profitability are directly correlated with diverse leadership teams. Further, a 2014 Bain study found employee satisfaction is “much higher than average for both men and women at companies perceived to offer each gender equal pay and promotion opportunities.”

From my perspective, this problem and opportunity to “get it right” starts at the origination of a company. By my calculation, with just a 5% female CEO showing in the Fortune 500, it will take 400 years to get to 50% at our current glacial pace of change.

Obviously this requires women themselves to start companies, but there’s a great deal we, as self-interested workers and members of society, can do to build the ideal business world—one where we aren’t served a dollop of depression alongside the big promotion.

  • Consumers: Buy and talk up products from female-founded startups and organizations with diverse leadership. With consumer spending representing 70% of the economy, our personal purchases do more to shape the world than any legislation could possibly do.
  • Business, government, education: Don’t wait for an affirmative action mandate; buy early and often from businesses with women at the helm and make a point to trumpet the organizations that over-deliver on their promises (a female characteristic, for better or worse).
  • Media and event organizers: Ensure one third of your cover stories and keynote speakers are women. Set a goal of 50% within two years. Once you pull these women into your network and associate them with your projects, your list of strong women contacts will expand and you’ll find yourself in a virtuous circle of growth and leadership in this arena. Women are no dummies—we flock to those influencers who “get it.”
  • Professional service providers: Do your best and then some for female clients. I recently engaged a new law firm and was surprised one of the founding partners is leading my company’s work. When I called that partner to award him our business, Jay Hachigian of Gunderson Dettmer, told me “I wanted to do this work personally because I have three daughters and far too few women CEOs on my client list.”
  • Investors: You’re one of the most critical change agents in this picture. Although they are a tiny slice of entrepreneurship, VC-funded companies contribute 20% of our GDP growth. They really matter and yet women CEOs only get 2.7% of the venture capital. We need the VC world to correct that egregious imbalance yesterday.
  • Employees: If you have two job offers and one has a diverse leadership team and the other doesn’t, take the bet that you’ll do better personally with the former. This isn’t activism or altruism; it’s just a smart career move.

The business world is inherently stressful so women executives should feel pressure, but no more than any other executive. Doing our part to change our images of success and the daily reality of women company founders and leaders will be a most powerful step in the right direction. It’s time to see that change because, frankly, we’re damned if we don’t.

You can follow Jules on Twitter at @julespieri. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search