Differential Effects of Stress on Gender

Written by Hilary Bowden, de la Fember.

We all know about stress.  Some of us perform well under it and some of us collapse.  Some people are more prone to take more risks and some become hesitant.  When it comes to our work we all have to make decisions and take risks, no matter how small or big they are.  What is the effect of stress on our decision-making capabilities?

Our body likes to be in a homeostasis, it likes to maintain a stable, controlled environment.  When we experience stress, this homeostasis is threatened, various neurotransmitters are released and the normal signaling between our body and brain goes out of whack.  Our sympathetic nervous system releases cortisol in our bodies, and this, among other things, affects the decision-making regions of the brain.

How does this reaction to stress differ between men and women?  Several studies have shown that men, in general, take more risks than women (Endres, 2006). Lighthall and colleagues found that acute stress amplifies these sex differences: men become more risk seeking and women become more risk avoidant.  These leads us into the basic “fight-or-flight” paradigm – our body’s response to a stressful stimulus – however, Taylor et al. demonstrated that females appear to have a different stress response than males.  They coined the term “tend-and-befriend” arguing that while “flight-or-flight” may work for males, it is not so adaptive for females given their sex-specific parental roles.  It makes sense, if you think about it: we women carry around a baby for 9 months, give birth, feed it, love it, and protect it with our life!  If we were to just leave our offspring their unguarded to either fight a battle or run from a lion, we’d be leaving it unprotected.  So, it makes sense that women would be more adapted to inhibiting risky responses to predators/stressors.

In corroboration with the above findings, Wang et al. found that there was greater hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (e.g cortisol) response and autonomic responses in men than in women.  A hormone that is expressed at high levels in women, oxytocin, may be the reason for the decreased response.  Basically, the cortisol might not be “properly” communicating with other regions of the brain.  Their study also suggests that the combination of increased limbic activity (read: emotion control center) and inadequate cortisol feedback may mediate the high propensity of women to depression.

Scientific jibber jabber aside, we get stressed, it’s not evolutionarily beneficial for us to run or fight but to stay and protect.  We play it safe.  In our work lives this may result in us not taking the same risks as men or cause us to interact differently when a threatening situation comes along (i.e competition for a promotion, proposing a more daring project idea, etc.).  Aside from these initial results of stress, the consequences of it can be emotionally taxing and, in some cases, can lead to depression.

I would like to end by saying that I do not think this means that we are stuck in these roles or that women can’t/don’t/won’t take risks.  I am also not saying that women are sensitive little flowers that need to be handled delicately.  I just think it’s important to take note of these differences and use this knowledge to our advantage.



Lighthall, N.*, Mather,M., Gorlick M. (2009) Acute Stress Increases Sex Differences in Risk Seeking in the Balloon Analogue Risk Task.  Plos One Volume 4: Issue 7

Taylor SE; Klein LC; Lewis BP; Gruenewald TL; Gurung RA; Updegraff JA (2000) Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review 107: 411-429

Wang   J,   Rao   H,   Wetmore   GS,   Furlan   PM,   Korczykowski   M,   et   al.   (2005) Perfusion functional MRI reveals cerebral blood flow pattern under psychological stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 102: 17804–17809.

Endres   ML   (2006)   The   effectiveness   of   assigned   goals   in   complex   financial decision   making   and   the   importance   of   gender.   Theory   and   Decision   61: 129–157