Higher Education: The Impact of Cardiovascular Disease in Women Leaders

Higher Education: The Impact of Cardiovascular Disease in Women Leaders

Higher Education: The Impact of Cardiovascular Disease in Women Leaders

By: Dr. M. L. Witherspoon

Cardiovascular disease has been documented as the leading cause of death for women in the United States; and, women are more likely to have cardiovascular disease than men (Garcia et al., 2017). The Financial Times (2018) commented that women leaders tend to have more circumstances to contend with than their male counterparts. Wallace (2015) discovered that women undergo more stress in their occupations than men. Medically, studies have shown that women are more prone to stress-based disorders than men (Bernard, 2009; Wallace, 2015). Researchers have explained the scientific reasoning behind this fact by linking their explanations to adrenal system functions. Women have a more sensitive adrenal system that controls stress response and hormones, leading to higher risk for anxiety-related disorders (The Financial Times, 2018). According to Cardiovascular Disease in Women: Clinical Perspectives (2017), some of these anxieties result in cardiovascular or heart disease. Studies have also indicated that women leaders in higher education are less satisfied with their positions than their male counterparts. Why? Well, women are often forced to make more sacrifices in terms of their personal lives to meet the demands of their jobs and families, intensifying these anxieties (Tack & Patitu, 1992). According to Bernard’s (2009) investigation, gender-specific work stress factors definitely exist. These are some of the contributing dynamics as to why women suffer from cardiovascular disease more-so than men.

“Women are busy wearing so many hats in life that they deserve to have all the shoes they want.” (Anonymous Author) www.notable-quotes.com

When women have to wear multiple hats, it forces them to have to choose between competing demands of occupation and home. Women are inclined to overextend themselves and jeopardize their physical health to accomplish these compounding life goals. Bernard (2009) stated that “women are likely to have multiple-role stress due to managing multiple roles and responsibilities… roles include being a mother, wife, professional woman, and caretaker of the home… when demands are not met, women suffer disappointment and guilt” (p. 34). The Simmons Leadership Conference, an event to promote women leaders, found that this stress could be due to women having to continuously prove themselves while trying to fit in with their male counterparts in their designated occupations. Elmuti, Jia, and Davis (2009) further examined some of the challenges that women face in leadership positions such as: the glass ceiling, common situational barriers that arise when trying to be promoted within an organization, stereotyping, leadership styles, organizational effectiveness, and other personal challenges. Elmuti et al. (2009) found that this could be accurate, especially since women leaders in higher education have a lot of responsibilities. Now more daunting task have been added to the college professoriate throughout the years. A basic job description for faculty usually includes teaching, conducting research, participating in community service, maintaining credentials for professional development, recording assessment for student learning objectives, focusing on recruitment/retention, doing committee work, and providing programmatic advising for students.

“A woman is the social barometer; she is an admirably contrived instrument for gauging the defects of her generation.” (Charles Edward Jerningham, The Maxims of Marmaduke)

According to Tack and Patitu (1992), faculty job satisfaction for women is in danger; and, this topic is deserving of immediate attention. This is of importance because faculty of the future must reflect the diversity of university populations being served. According to Forbes (2012), “female domination of higher education prevails across all types of schools” (p. 1). Women faculty must be prevalent in university environments due to these male to female ratios for college student populations. Faculty positions need to be made attractive to keep women in higher education (Tack & Patitu, 1992). Women leaders are not going to remain in higher education positions if they continue to experience occupational stressors that contribute to cardiovascular disease. According to Bernard (2009), Occupational stress has been a topic of significant research for the last two decades and has become one of the main reasons for medical retirements. Occupational stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional response that occurs when the requirements of the job exceed the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker and leads to poor health and injury… Work-related stress is increasingly recognized as one of the most serious occupational health hazards, often resulting in employee dissatisfaction, lowered productivity, absenteeism, and turnover… Various occupations generate different levels of work stress. While each profession has unique stressors, teachers and managers experience higher levels of work stress (p. 32).

There are newer techniques that are being employed to reduce occupational stress for women leaders in higher education. The WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic will be taking place October 5-8, 2018. This is a volunteer program that trains women with heart disease to become community educators and network coordinators solely for women heart patients. Work stress is significantly associated with negative psychological outcomes, so Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction training has been proposed for high stress professions. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is a program where participants learn about ways to increase self-awareness, self-regulation, compassion, and to cope with short and long term stressors. The University of Miami’s Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative consist of the UMindfulness Program that uses an interdisciplinary approach and other inventive approaches to enhance mental and physical wellness.


Bernard, P. (2009). The Stressors and Coping Strategies of Women in Leadership Positions. Andrews University Digital Library of Dissertations and Theses. Andrews University Digital Commons. http://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/dissertations

Borzelleca, D. (2012, February 16). The Male-Female Ratio in College. Forbes. https://forbes.com

Elmuti, D., Jia, H., & Davis, H. (2009). Challenges Women Face in Leadership Positions and Organizational Effectiveness: An Investigation. Journal of Leadership Education, 8 (2). http://journalofleadershiped.org

Garcia, M., Mulvagh, S., Noel Bairey Merz, C., Buring, J., & Manson, J. (2017, April 15). Cardiovascular Disease in Women: Clinical Perspectives. HHS Public Access. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4834856

Jha, A., Rogers, S., & Morrison, A. (2014). Mindfulness Training in High Stress Professions: Strengthening Attention and Resilience. http://www.amishi.com

Tack, M., & Patitu, C. (1992). Faculty Job Satisfaction: Women and Minorities in Peril. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report (4). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED353885

Wallace, C. (May 18, 2015). Women Leaders Feel Under More Stress in the Workplace. The Fit Executive Women in Business. https://www.ft.com/content/b29bb322-fa4b-11e4-a41c-00144feab7de


Dr. M. L. Witherspoon is a Dissertation Chair for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, a member of the Center for Leadership Studies and Educational Research Hub, and a college professor in the communication, education, and research disciplines. 

Feel free to reply here with questions, insights, and additional commentary on this topic. For future reference, look for the full text version of the article in The Scholar.


Ryan Rominger's picture Ryan Rominger | May 1, 2018 8:30 am MST

Dr. Witherspoon,

I appreciated your post, particularly as a therapist who uses mindfulness-based therapy in my practice. Your connection to mindfulness and the UMass link was particularly on point, as after identifying a problem it is nice to offer a potential direction or way to help with the problem (here, stress for women in leadership roles). Well done!

Ryan Rominger


Michelle Witherspoon's picture Michelle Witherspoon | May 1, 2018 2:39 pm MST

Thank you Dr. Rominger. Honestly, I was unaware of the "mindfulness" jargon used in academic studies until I started to conduct research on this topic. I am going to try to attend a training session in the near future since I live near the University of Miami. From what I have gathered thus far, UM seems to be the institution of higher education spearheading this new movement.

Dr. Witherspoon

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