The Scandinavian countries are often held up as the most progressive countries in Europe for workplace gender equality. But a new study suggests that those countries rate worse than the rest of Europe when it comes to workplace stress among professional women.

The study, which was published earlier this month in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, compared gender inequality across Europe as measured by perceived exposure to "work-related psychosocial hazards." It considered three common "hazards": high job demands and little job control; the same high job demands and little job control plus a lack of social support; and high effort and low reward.

The study, which was based on data from the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey carried out in 2005, analyzed the responses of more than 12,400 women and 15,000 men in 28 countries across Europe. Those countries were divided into five categories (Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Continental, Southern, and Eastern); the categories reflected not just geography but also work protection policies and traditional gender roles. Respondents were also sorted into three occupational classes: managers, professionals, and technicians; service and retail employees; and manual workers. Workplace exposure to psychosocial hazards was compared across gender, geocultural region, and occupational class.

The researchers, who are based in Spain and Sweden, expected to find that strong national policies for employment and social protection correlated with low perceived exposure to gender-related psychosocial hazards, writes first author Javier Campos-Serna of the Center for Research in Occupational Health at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, in an e-mail to Science Careers. If that were true, then the Scandinavian region would show the least gender inequality, followed by the Continental and Anglo-Saxon regions, Southern Europe, and then Eastern Europe. The researchers also expected gender inequality to be most pronounced in the lower occupational classes.

The opposite was true. When comparing the situation of managers and professionals across Europe, women in Scandinavia led all other regions in exposure to all three types of work-related psychosocial hazards. Forty-one percent of female managers and professionals in Scandinavia reported high demand and low job control; 34.7% reported high demand, low job control, and low social support; and 26.5% reported high effort and low reward. The prevalence of such hazards was generally much lower in men. At the other end of the hazard spectrum, "Anglo-Saxon men who were also managers/professionals showed the lowest prevalence of exposures to high demand-low control (13.5%), high demand-low control-low social support (11.2%), and high effort-low reward (16.9%)," Campos-Serna writes in his e-mail.

Across Europe, women were more exposed than men to almost all types of psychosocial hazards. But the gender differences—as measured by the ratio of the prevalence of women's exposure relative to men's—were greatest in the Scandinavian countries. Almost universally, the highest occupational class was most exposed to hazards, but this effect was largest in Scandinavia. Scandinavia also showed the greatest differences among occupational classes. "This phenomenon reminds us … of the Greek myth of the flight of Icarus," Campos-Serna writes by e-mail. For those not up on their Greek mythology, Icarus died when his wings melted because he flew too close to the sun.

"Contrarily to what we initially hypothesized, gender inequalities … were not lower in those welfare state regimes with greater levels of wealth redistribution and more universal policies for social protection nor, more specifically, among the most privileged … occupational social classes," Campos-Serna writes. Why? One possible explanation—proposed by Science Careers, not the researchers—is that perceived exposure to psychosocial hazards in the highest occupational classes is higher among women in Scandinavia simply because more women are working in such positions there than elsewhere. In this interpretation, women in other regions encounter those hazards less frequently because they less often hold jobs traditionally held by men. There could also be some backlash against the hiring of women in such jobs.

Regardless of the explanation, the study makes it clear that even in Europe's most progressive areas there is still work to do before women will be truly equal in higher occupational roles.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300208