Men's (Mis)Perceptions of the Stigma of Unemployment
Kenneth S. Michniewicz
University of South Florida
Sample size: 1000
Field period: 6/14/2010-11/18/2010
During the recent U.S. economic recession, men accounted for more than 70% of jobs lost, a cause for concern given the importance of employment to the male gender role. We examined men's beliefs about the effects of unemployment on their gender status and the role of these beliefs in men's mental health. Using a nationally representative sample of Americans (N = 816), we found that, compared to women, men estimated greater loss of gender status when imagining or recalling a job loss. Moreover, men expected greater loss of gender status than a separate sample of respondents assigned to a hypothetical male victim of job loss. Finally, expected gender status loss following unemployment related more strongly to negative mental health outcomes for men than women. We discuss these results in light of the current economy and shifting cultural norms.
Hypothesis 1a: Relative to women, employed men will anticipate greater gender status loss in the eyes of others when imagining a future job loss.
Hypothesis 1b: Relative to women, unemployed men will report experiencing greater gender status loss in the eyes of others when recalling their job loss.
Hypothesis 2: Employed and unemployed respondents should anticipate and report more gender status loss than a hypothetical victim of job loss actually receives, and overestimates of gender status loss should especially characterize male respondents.
Hypothesis 3: Among unemployed respondents, reported gender status loss will more strongly predict negative mental health outcomes for men than women.
Perspective was experimentally manipulated. Some participants responded from a first-person perspective, where they forecasted (if they were employed) or recalled (if they were unemployed) the consequences of their own involuntary job loss. Other participants responded from a third-person perspective, where they evaluated an individual who had recently lost their job.
Participants rated the target (self or hypothetical other), "at the time of job loss," on gender status and several gender-related traits (scales ranged from 1 [Not at all] to 7 [Extremely]). Participants rating a male target completed items assessing male gender status and trait masculinity, whereas those rating a female target completed items assessing female gender status and trait femininity.
To rate gender status loss, we created a composite based on two items: "Not a real man (woman)" and "Less of a man (woman)" (α = 0.90 for male targets, α = 0.75 for female targets). To rate trait masculinity/femininity, participants indicated the target's standing on prescriptive and proscriptive gender-relevant traits (Rudman et al., 2012). Prescriptive traits, or qualities valued for one's gender, included competitive, assertive, independent, and has leadership ability for male targets and warm, sensitive to others, and supportive for female targets. Proscriptive traits, or qualities devalued for one's gender, included indecisive, uncertain, weak, and insecure for male targets and controlling, intimidating, aggressive, and dominating for female targets. Ratings were aggregated to form a prescriptive traits composite (α = 0.85 for masculine traits, α = 0.82 for feminine traits) and a proscriptive traits composite (α = 0.84 for masculine traits, α = 0.84 for feminine traits).
In addition to these target-specific gender items, all participants rated their current mental health (regardless of perspective condition). Items measuring symptoms of anxiety and depression came from the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI; Derogatis & Melisaratos, 1983), which surveys respondents' feelings over the past four weeks. Anxiety items included "Nervousness or shakiness," "Feeling tense or keyed up," and "Feeling so restless you couldn't sit still" (α = 0.85), and depression items included "Feeling no interest in things," "Feeling hopeless about the future," and "Feelings of worthlessness" (α = 0.89). Participants rated all BSI items on scales of 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely). Finally, participants completed the Single-Item Self-Esteem Scale (SISE; Robins, Hendin, & Trzesniewski, 2001), consisting of one item, "I have high self-esteem," that is rated on a scale of 1 (not very true of me) to 9 (very true of me). We standardized the three indices (depression, anxiety, self-esteem) and combined them into a single composite with higher scores indicating better mental health (α = 0.76).
Findings supported all three hypotheses. Supporting Hypothesis 1a, employed men reported expecting lower evaluations of gender status and prescriptive traits as well as higher evaluations of proscriptive traits relative to employed women. The identical pattern emerged among unemployed participants (thus supporting Hypothesis 1b).
Supporting Hypothesis 2, men were particularly likely to expect harsher ratings of their own gender status than participants rating a hypothetical third-person other actually provided.
For Hypothesis 3, we examined the relationship between expectations of gender status loss and self-reported mental health scores separately for male and female respondents. In support of this Hypothesis, this relationship was significant for men (but not women): specifically, the greater expectation of gender status loss men expected, the lower their self-reported mental health.
Despite the inaccuracy of unemployed men's expectations of gender status loss, such perceptions nonetheless have implications for men's mental health. Unemployed men who perceived more gender status loss also reported worse mental health. To our knowledge, these findings are the first to show that not only do men expect harsher penalties to their gender status, but these exaggerated (and likely inaccurate) perceptions predict poorer mental health outcomes. Clinicians may benefit from focusing treatment on dispelling men's inaccurate expectations of gender status loss.
Although the recession shows signs of recovery (Goodman, 2010), it belies a more profound and permanent cultural shift. Women's workforce participation continues to grow (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000), and women are increasingly earning higher degrees (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010), making them competitive for the types of jobs traditionally filled by men. Moreover, available jobs are less masculine than in the past (Maudlin, 2010). These trends together suggest that, even with economic recovery, men will continue to confront changes in the fundamental nature of work and its ties to masculinity. Despite this struggle and the resulting consequences suggested for men's mental health, we end on an optimistic note: Men faced with the threat of job loss inaccurately expect worse penalties than they actually receive, a misperception that may be relatively simple to disabuse.