April 12, is Equal Pay Day, the day symbolizing how far into the year women must work in order to catch up to what men earned in the previous year alone.
It’s an anxious topic in many ways, given the connection between the pay gap and women’s financial insecurities.
It’s also a topic that directly involves the problem of social anxiety, a condition afflicting about 15 million people and a disproportionate number of women.
Joanne Davila, a clinical psychologist and professor at Stony Brook University in New York, says social anxiety disorder can take a toll on career prospects.
“People who are socially anxious are afraid that others are going to evaluate them in a negative, harsh, critical manner,” Davila says. “And consequently they get anxious, worried, and nervous in situations where that can happen.”
More than just being shy, social anxiety disorder is a condition based in fear of being embarrassed or judged in social situations.
“Women’s wages are already lower than men’s and [social anxiety disorder] decreases it even further,” Sanna Kuusikko-Gauffin, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oulu in Finland, said in an email interview.
Furthering the problem, there’s evidence that the income gap itself might lead to both anxiety and depression in women and with more and more evidence connecting women’s mental health to wages, recent reports on the wage gap are increasingly troubling.
Last year, it was reported that the income gap between men and women had not improved since 2007 and this month on International Women’s Day, ThinkProgressrelayed disheartening findings from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
In 2015, compared to men, women actually saw a decrease in their weekly earnings. Further, while both men and women received increases in their median incomes, the percent increase of men’s wages was nearly three times that of women.
Too Little Being Said
Reluctance to talk about anxiety is part of the problem.
Like most mental health topics, there’s a pervasive negative stigma around social anxiety preventing many people from discussing it or seeking help. “It adds another layer to the problem,” says Davila.
The good news, however, is that celebrities are opening up.
In January, Oprah began a discussion of mental illnesses, including her own bouts of depression and anxiety.
Male athletes have also helped push the problem to the surface in the past few years.
We’ve seen professional baseball player Zach Greinke take time off from baseball to receive treatment for social anxiety that was inhibiting his career. NFL running back Ricky Williams was diagnosed with the disorder, and shortstop Khalil Greene was put on the MLB disabled list because of social anxiety.
Putting celebrity faces on the disorder is a productive step towards a more informed dialogue on the topic and a step away from negative stigma.
Social anxiety can impair job commitment, reduce productivity, and increase missed work hours. There’s even evidence that social anxiety correlates with lower incomes and employment rates, which means bad news for women in particular.
As far as the wage gap is concerned, change is unfortunately limited to the pace of legislation and changing practices in the workplace.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the time frame for filing complaints against unfair pay based on gender and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have flagged wage disparity in their campaigns.
In the meantime, to the extent that social anxiety contributes to wage disparity, the good news is that it is rather treatable through cognitive behavioral therapy, an established treatment that works to reduce fears associated with social situations.
According to Davila, “Cognitive behavioral therapies focus on helping people change the way they think about socially evaluative situations and expose them to those situations in ways that let them see that either their worst fear isn’t going to come true or that they can handle it if it does.”
The bad news, though, is that while women are more likely to be affected by social anxiety, they’re less likely to seek treatment for it.
A recent study also showed that small amounts of testosterone might help women suffering from social anxiety.
Individuals with social anxiety disorder typically avoid eye contact with others and particularly if the expression is aggressive or angry, but socially anxious women given testosterone didn’t avoid eye contact with angry faces any more than their healthy counterparts did.
“This is only a first experimental study, and we still need to test whether it can work in a clinical setting,” says Dorien Enter, a Ph.D. candidate at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and an author of the study. “It could be interesting for future investigations to explore whether adding testosterone as a pharmacologic enhancer in the first few therapy sessions can boost efficacy of exposure therapy in SAD.”