The Effect of Stress on the Brain and the Gender Pay Gap

This story has been widely reported:

Earlier research has shown that girls who experience trauma are more likely to go on to develop PTSD than boys. Why this should be the case is another question awaiting an answer.

A team of researchers recently set out to investigate potential reasons behind this gender difference in more detail. Their results were published earlier this week in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

To gather an understanding of the brain changes that take place in PTSD, researchers took MRI scans of 59 participants aged 9-17.

Of the participants, 30 had trauma symptoms (14 girls and 16 boys); five of these individuals had experienced one period of trauma, while the others had experienced two or more episodes or had experienced chronic trauma. The remaining 29 participants had not experienced trauma (15 girls and 14 boys) and were used as the control group.

The traumatized individuals and the controls were all of similar ages and IQs.

Once the MRI scans were analyzed, there were no differences found between the girl’s and boy’s brains in the control group. However, in the trauma group, significant differences were uncovered.

These striking gender differences were found in a region of the insula – a deep fold in the brain thought to be important in a range of processes, including homeostasis and emotion.

Differences in how adult men and women handle stress has been studied many times before as well – here is one example:

The interactions between emotion-processing areas like the right temporal pole, insula and inferior fontal gyrus also differed by gender. The researchers looked at a measurement called functional connectivity, which reveals the extent to which brain areas simultaneously become active. Men showed less functional connectivity between these areas when stressed, while women showed more. It seems that when women are stressed, social and emotional areas of the brain go on alert, perhaps reflecting a tendency to reach out. The same areas in men’s brains seem to disengage.

The researchers don’t know whether these brain differences are innate or a product of socialization, and they can’t yet say if the decreased activity in stressed men causes them to actually become less engaged and empathic, or if they compensate in some other way. However, Mather said, other research does find gender differences in the way men and women act when stressed. The current study meshes with those findings, she said.

I’m no physiologist, but if I read this correctly, these researchers would say that on average there are differences in how men and women would react to difficult situations in a stressful environment, like that in many workplaces. My guess is that if pressed a step further, these researchers would say that on average there are differences in the rate of successful outcomes in the workplace for people who are otherwise alike in skill and experience but who differ by gender. Now, these physiologists are not economists nor do they operate in the corporate world, but I wonder whether they would expect there to be a gender pay gap, and, if the answer was yes, would they expect that pay gap to differ quite a bit from industry to industry. Would they say that on average there are some jobs at which men would do better than women, and other jobs for which women outperform men?  Would their answers to questions like these be progressive?

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