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What knowing that you make less money because you're a woman does to your brain, according to science

What knowing that you make less money because you're a woman does to your brain, according to science

Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams All the Money in the World

  • Having more money and a higher status than others can be good for your health.
  • Powerful people have what’s known as a “stress buffer” that reduces fear and helps them perform better.
  • Recent research suggests that people who perceive themselves as unfairly compensated may internalize the feelings of lower status and can suffer from bad health as a result.
  • The stress can create chemical changes in the brain that promote long-term health problems. 

Reports about the persistent gender pay gap have proliferated in recent weeks.

Michelle Williams reportedly got paid 0.0006% of what Mark Wahlberg did to re-shoot scenes in their upcoming movie “All the Money in the World.” As USA Today reported, Williams received less than $1,000 for her work, while Wahlberg raked in $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, new “Today” co-anchor Hoda Kotb says she’s definitely not making what she called “Matt Lauer money”. Lauer likely made around $10 million a year before he was fired from the network for inappropriate sexual behavior at work, NBC said. According to People, Kotb said her new salary is “not even close”.  

At the BBC, Carrie Gracie, a senior editor in China, quit her job earlier this month because she said the company had a “secretive and illegal” salary system that systematically paid men more, as The New York Times reported.

On average, women in the US make around .79 cents on the dollar compared to men doing the same work. For black women, the number may be even lower — the Economic Policy Institute estimates they make .67 cents for every dollar a white man doing the same work would be paid. 

Knowing that you make less money than someone doing the same kind of work can mess with your brain.

Scientists have known for years that powerful, high-status people derive health benefits from their lofty socioeconomic perch. But Pranjal Mehta, who studies power hormones at University College London,  says the health-boosting effects of power are not absolute, and instead have to do with how you feel about where you rank in the social pecking order.  

“It’s not just people’s objective economic status, but their perception of where they fit,” Mehta told Business Insider. 

A 2000 study of 157 white women backs this idea up. The researchers found that women’s subjective understanding of their social status was more “consistently and strongly related to psychological functioning and health-related factors” then their objective status. Where the participants thought they fit on the social ladder affected their self-reported health, sleep quality, body fat distribution, and stress levels. A different study also found evidence that a perception of lower status can have lasting effects on job performance and can even hurt women’s ability to do math problems relative to men when they feel they’re being judged as less capable. 

Minority groups also have to deal with “stigma-related stress” that can be triggered by discrimination like “receiving poorer services in restaurants or stores, being treated as threatening and/or being assumed to be unintelligent,” according to psychologist David Frost’s 2011 research. The stress from such experiences can have long-term health effects — studies have found links between stigma-related stress and higher instances of smoking, depression and suicide. 

Similarly, the brain responds poorly to the idea of unfair compensation, and perceived economic inequality can have long-term effects on a person’s brain and lead to depression.  

Mehta says this is all especially problematic because it makes it relatively easy for powerful, well-heeled people to “retain the hierarchy”. In other words, these impacts on health and performance keep the rich and powerful in their elevated place while making those who perceive themselves as “low-status” appear less competent, even if they aren’t. 

Some psychologists refer to the health-boosting effect of power as a “stress buffer” — it gets displayed in the body in the form of lower cortisol levels and higher levels of testosterone. These physiological changes reduce fear in powerful people and help them perform better. 

Other research suggests people who feel powerful are also more in tune with their “gut feelings” (though they’re not as good at empathizing with others). They’re also less likely to develop stress-linked diseases like heart conditions and type 2 diabetes. Oh, and they live longer.

But some of Mehta’s latest research suggests that “stress buffer” may not be absolute. A groundbreaking 2017 study showed that when hierarchies are unstable and people believe positions of power can be overturned, the difference essentially gets erased. That can make everyone feel like they’re on a more level playing field, as those without money and power feel less psychologically stressed out, and those with established power feel unsettled.

But in order to have that more equitable distribution of stress, everyone has to genuinely believe they have control over where they’ll end up.

SEE ALSO: What power does to your brain and your body

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