Women, Job Authority, and Health

Collins published a paper with Tetyana PudrovskaDeborah Carr and Michael McFarland in 2013 seeking to understand how the higher incidence of breast cancer among higher-status women in the U.S. may be explained by gendered occupational experiences. The article appears in Social Science & Medicine.

Abstract: Using the 1957-2011 data from 3682 White non-Hispanic women (297 incident breast cancer cases) in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, United States, we explore the effect of occupation in 1975 (at age 36) on breast cancer incidence up to age 72. Our study is motivated by the paradoxical association between higher-status occupations and elevated breast cancer risk, which presents a challenge to the consistent health advantage of higher social class. We found that women in professional occupations had 72-122% and women in managerial occupations had 57-89% higher risk of a breast cancer diagnosis than housewives and women in lower-status occupations. We explored an estrogen-related pathway (reproductive history, health behaviors, and life-course estrogen cycle) as well as a social stress pathway (occupational experiences) as potential explanations for the effect of higher-status occupations. The elevated risk of breast cancer among professional women was partly explained by estrogen-related variables but remained large and statistically significant. The association between managerial occupations and breast cancer incidence was fully explained by job authority defined as control over others’ work. Exercising job authority was related to higher breast cancer risk (HR ¼ 1.57, 95% CI: 1.12, 2.18), especially with longer duration of holding the professional/managerial job.We suggest that the assertion of job authority by women in the 1970s involved stressful interpersonal experiences that may have promoted breast cancer development via prolonged dysregulation of the glucocorticoid system and exposure of the breast tissue to adverse effects of chronically elevated cortisol. Our study emphasizes complex biosocial pathways through which women’s gendered occupational experiences become embodied and drive forward physiological repercussions.

Pudrovska, Tetyana, Deborah Carr, Michael McFarland, and Caitlyn Collins. 2013. “Higher-Status Occupations and Breast Cancer: A Life-Course Stress Approach.” Social Science and Medicine 89:53-61.