“If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?.”

Stephen Wright

Gender Differences in Social Support

I just read a research paper that suggested that marriage might not improve men’s health as once thought1. In a review of data gathered between 1972 and 2003 (more than one million men and women), men who never married reported overall health about the same as those of married men over time. Apparently, single men today have access to social networks of family, friends and co-workers which facilitate social support outside of marriage.

How much social support do men and women report?

How dissatisfied are they with their sources of social support?

We took a look at some results from our stress and health risk assessment called StressScan by analyzing availability, utility and satisfaction of social support by gender. We tested gender differences by using a statistical test called Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) and found some interesting differences in gender with a sample of almost 800 professional working men and women.

1. In general, women reported greater availability and use of their social support network (supervisor/boss, colleagues/co-workers, partner, family and friends) than their male counterparts (all p’s < .01).

2. Women reported using their boss or supervisor significantly more frequently than men. This was surprising as research suggests that more successful women have indicated that mentoring was less important to their career advancement than did less successful women.

3. Women reported significantly more availability, use and satisfaction with their friends compared to males. They also reported greater availability and use of their partners, families and friends (all p’s < .01) which is consistent to what Shelly Taylor, Ph.D. has suggested as part of the female “tend and befriend” response to coping with work and life stress2.

In our statistical analysis of social support for professional men and women we were able to determine the relative amount of dissatisfaction with specific sources of social support. Men and women (N= 785) rated they were either “Not at All” or only “Slightly” satisfied with the following sources to meet their emotional and instrumental support needs:

  • Boss/Supervisor 31.0%
  • Colleagues/Co-Workers 16.8%
  • Family 13.0%
  • Partners/Significant Others 9.9%
  • Friends 8.3%

With respect to work, the Gallup Organization’s survey of over five million employees suggests that employee satisfaction increases by just about 50% when they have close relationships at work. If they have relationships with their boss, employees reported to be more than 2.5 times more likely to be engaged with their jobs.

Having a strong social support network and being satisfied appears to be associated with the level of stress and well-being. Men and women in our sample who reported greater overall social support also reported significantly:

  • Lower Stress (correlation r= .35, p < .01)
  • Greater Resilience/Hardiness (correlation r= .47, p < .01)
  • Greater Happiness (correlation r= .58, p < .01)

We know strong social support for both sexes is significantly associated with longevity, physical health and psychological well being. But, remember that getting married still seems to be the leading cause of divorce and becoming widowed which has pretty serious health risk consequences.

So, if your aren’t willing to go to marriage counseling with your boss then go hug a friend…..Be well….

  1. Liu, H. & Umberson, D. (2008). The Times They Are a Changing: Marital Status and Health Differentials from 1972 to 2003. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 49, 239-254 []
  2. Taylor, S. E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. Behaviorial Responses to Stress: Tend and Befriend, Not Fight or Flight” Psychol Rev, 107(3):41-429 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Wellness

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