Young working women often feel pressured to hide mental health struggles and sugar-coat reactions to sexism, according to a study into pressures faced by our female workforce.

Nilima Chowdhury, a PhD student at the University of Auckland, has conducted the study exploring distress and depression in professional women - particularly career newbies.

The project also delved into how organisations often expect certain responses from female employees - and how these might differ from their expectations of males.

Chowdhury conducted focus groups to discuss general workplace demeanour, as well as separate study groups talking about depression.


Chowdhury acknowledged health struggles were not gender specific, but said the issues were often "exacerbated" for women.

Women often already have to battle negative stereotypes around women's incompetence or "being too emotional", she said.

"The stigma surrounding depression then becomes an added disadvantage or weakness."

Women often felt they were starting off on the back foot, she said, so couldn't afford to show any "extra weakness".

"They are working in what are often male-dominated environments," Chowdhury said.

"So there is certainly a sense of constantly needing to prove your worth, to prove that you are competent and belong."

Chowdhury said many research participants spoke of a set of "unwritten rules".

These would not be explicitly laid out for female employees, but instead picked up through their socialisation into the workplace.


"By observing other women, by telling stories … you quickly get a general gist of how you're supposed to do things and manage yourself."

"On the one hand we have this idea that we've sort of reached equality and we've made a lot of progress. But at the same time there's this idea that women should be soft-spoken and gentle and modest - things like that."

Assertiveness and anger took on different meanings when expressed by men and women, Chowdhury found.

While assertive men would often be considered confident and ambitious, the same traits when expressed by their female counterparts could lead to negative labels - like bitchy or bossy.

Technology entrepreneur Annette Presley said attitudes towards women had improved since she started out in the workforce, but there was still room for improvement.

After the launch of her own IT recruitment company, Stratum, in 1987, Presley co-founded CallPlus, made up of CallPlus Business, Slingshot, Orcon, Flip and 2talk, with her business partner and former husband Malcolm Dick.

Shortly after she founded Stratum, Presley said she had an encounter with the male owner of a competitor company she would never forget.

Chowdhury said the research found many young working women felt they would be punished socially or career-wise if they did not adhere to a set of unwritten rules. Photo / Getty Images
Chowdhury said the research found many young working women felt they would be punished socially or career-wise if they did not adhere to a set of unwritten rules. Photo / Getty Images

The acquaintance, whom she had looked up to for some time, had asked her out to lunch - which she was thrilled about.

"After a few wines and a meal he looked at me and said, 'you have done really well'."

"He said, 'obviously, you have slept with all of the managers to be in this situation'."

Presley remembered leaving the lunch and crying, but said that was "just what happened" in those days.

Thinking back, she said the encounter strengthened her determination to show him what she was made of.

"What's happening now is a long time coming and a long time needed," she said.

"Young women need to be protected in the work and to feel safe."

The release of research comes several months after a spate of allegations involving sexism and harassment targeting females within top New Zealand law firms.

Earlier this year allegations came to light involving top law firm Russell McVeagh, including that five summer clerks were sexually harassed over the summer of 2015/16.

A report penned by Dame Margaret Bazley into the culture at the firm told of a workplace in which instances of crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour were commonplace.

She also noted more work was needed to address underlying sexism, as too many female lawyers were leaving the firm rather than progressing to partnership.

Chowdhury said those kind of experiences in the workplace could be explicitly linked to mental health battles.

An expectation that women should be able to cope with everything could result in feelings of failure, she said.

"You should be more resilient, you should be able to handle all of the things that life throws at you - that's the sort of expectation that arises from this superwoman ideal."