Putting a price on women's emotional labour in the workplace

Emotional labour also exists in the workplace - and it is disproportionately affecting women.

From tone policing to being the default note taker and party planner, the emotional labour women of all levels face comes at a cost to their careers and wellbeing.

By Gwen Moran

Welcome to being a working woman in the 2010s, where the gender pay gap, scant leadership representation, and negotiation backlash – not to mention #metoo and #timesup – are common workplace land mines. Be sure you regulate your composure so you’re not too “abrasive”. Also, we’re going to need you to do your part for workplace culture by acting as a sounding board, taking notes during meetings and sending us a recap email, ordering pizza when we work late, and planning office events and birthday parties. Oh, and be sure to clean up the kitchen when you’re done.

In an article published in a September 2017 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, titled “Women Aren’t Nags. We’re Just Fed Up,” writer Gemma Hartley sparked a national conversation about the disparity in emotional labour among spouses and partners. But emotional labour also exists in the workplace - and it disproportionately affects women.

Caretaking in the office

The concept isn’t new. The 1983 book The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild, which was reissued in 2012, kicked off the scholarly conversation about emotional labour, says communication expert Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. Emotional labour in its original context meant “surface acting,” or managing emotions to make people around you comfortable. So that may mean putting on a smile in a service job, no matter how you’re feeling. It may mean watching tone in communication, or acting in ways that reinforce prescribed norms.

Diversity consultant Megan Eiss-Proctor, founder and CEO of Heddy Consulting, recalls an instance where a single email message she sent to her team triggered a 45-minute feedback session during which she says her supervisor criticised the tone of her email, which had offended a male colleague.

"This stuff isn't helping us move up the corporate ladder because no one cares about it" Katie Donovan, Equal Pay Negotiations, LLC

Eiss-Proctor says the situation was frustrating because she had taken great pains to introduce an agenda to better organise meetings and spent time thinking about the best way to frame the email so that it didn’t come across as too pushy. “The only way to adjust was to essentially cede my power almost entirely with the suggestion he gave me, which was, ‘You draft it, and then you send it to me, and then I’ll send it from me, and he will feel better about it,’” she says.

The costs of emotional labour

To meet expectations, women often take on many of the daily culture-building and housekeeping tasks, Headlee says. “It includes not only the expectation that women are supposed to take care of emotional needs, but any social activities in the workplace,” Headlee says. “We’re also talking about the extra emotional labour that women have to go through in order to be smiling at work, in order to live up to the expectations of how we’re supposed to behave when we are at work.”

But all of that smiling and taking care of others takes time and energy. Plus it’s not helping you advance, says Boston-based pay equity expert Katie Donovan, founder of the consultancy Equal Pay Negotiations, LLC. Donovan works as a coach with mostly women executives and complaints about emotional labour are common. “This stuff isn’t helping us move up the corporate ladder because no one cares about it,” she says. Plus, she says, it’s taking time away from the high-value work that can help women move into leadership roles, and you may need to put in extra time to make up for that which was lost.

A previous Fast Company

article by Eric Jaffe found that when women violate the behaviours expected of them, they’re often punished. If she’s expected to be compassionate and instead acts forcefully, she’s more likely to be labelled “brusque” instead of “decisive”. The piece also found that:

  • Women who succeed in male domains are disliked
  • Women who promote themselves are less hireable
  • Women who negotiate for higher pay are penalised
  • Women who express anger are given lower status

It’s a dangerous cycle, says Leah Sheppard, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington.

“It’s hard to know exactly where the problem stems from. Is it that women are somehow just more likely to agree to these things or volunteer for these things? Are they more likely to be asked? There is some literature that might suggest that it’s both,” she says. 

But opting out may have consequences. According to one 2005 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, when women and men behave altruistically at work, men are given outsize accolades for doing so. When women don’t step up and go the extra mile, they’re judged more harshly.

Redistributing the caretaking

It’s time to release women from workplace housekeeping and caretaking roles. Some remedies are so simple that they seem silly, but they work. “As depressing as this may be, you have to make a task wheel, the exact same way as if you had children,” Headlee says. Company leaders and managers need to get involved and make sure that the distribution of this extra work – from planning corporate activities to making the morning coffee – is being shouldered by everyone.

“Once you get a little awareness, it’s a like taking a red pill and unplugging from The Matrix. I think part of it is getting to see a different world that we’re not seeing before. We are fish swimming in sexist waters. When you pull us out of this medium, and you see what you’ve been swimming in, it’s a revelation. It can be quite empowering to not just the women but also to the men to realise what’s going on, and also to give them the tools that they need to show respect to their female coworkers,” Headlee says.

This story was originally published in Fast Company.

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