Course Correcting the Inequities of Unpaid Emotional Labor

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As a woman, have you ever been asked to plan an office party? Have you been asked to grab lunch or coffee for the boss? Or mediate a conflict between co-workers? Chances are you’ve done one of these things or something similar, even though you weren’t paid for it and it wasn’t in your job description. Such work is known as emotional labor and it disproportionally falls onto women. The term first appeared in 1983, when sociologist Arlie Hochschild published The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Emotional labor refers to tasks that involve regulating or managing one’s emotions at work when dealing with others. 

Women Take On the Brunt of Emotional Labor At Work

Research shows women in heterosexual relationships do an hour of chores more per day as compared to men. In the workplace, women in leadership positions are expected to be charming, likable, and to accept interruptions more readily and without complaint. In many workplaces, women are also expected to do office housework. A male colleague is far less likely to be given such tasks as women are thought to possess the soft skills needed for emotional labor. Of course, there's nothing wrong with soft skills. They should be celebrated and valued enough to be worthy of pay. The reality, however, is that women are often simply expected to utilize their soft skills for free. 

It Also Happens At Home 

At home, women are often expected to take on emotional work, too. This can include managing household chores if they are a mother or elder daughter, being expected to smile at family members or strangers upon request, tending to the children’s physical and emotional needs more than the father, etc.. When it comes to relationships, women are often expected to plan dates, remember anniversaries, and ensure the relationship is emotionally healthy.  

There Are Certain Types of Jobs That Demand More Emotional Labor 

Learning which kinds of work demand more emotional labor can help us see the issue more clearly. Unpaid emotional labor is often expected in jobs considered to be “care work,” such as teachers, home health aides, nurses, and even in retail and service sector jobs. Unsurprisingly, these types of jobs are dominated by women. 

Mothers and Guardians Are Especially Impacted 

Women are more impacted by emotional labor as they are more likely to deal with child-rearing duties that impact their ability to be full-time in an office. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), elders, teens, and female workers were most likely to work part-time for reasons such as balancing work with child care duties, having to stay home with a sick child, needing to be a chaperone for school activities, or having to do household chores. They are also more likely to be part-time if they are in school themselves. 

Rates of women who worked part-time in order to fulfill care-taking duties weren’t too different regardless of their single or marital status. Women of all races were likely to be part-time workers in order to accommodate caring duties. Essentially, women scale back their careers when forming families if they can because emotional labor and work are also demanding. 

So, What Can Be Done to Alleviate the Burden?

There are social and policy-based components that explain why women engage in so much unpaid emotional labor and work. For one, the United States has no federal paid parental leave or universal childcare options. Nations with these policies have better mental, physical, and career options for women. Until we change the way we think about emotional labor and work, there are things that can be done to ensure women and men share responsibilities more equitably. Here are just a few solutions to try: 

  • Parents can ensure all of their children learn to do common household tasks often relegated to girls.

  • Couples can check in regularly on who may be doing which chores, ensuring everyone in the relationship takes care of tasks.

  • If a couple is expecting a child, communicate about the division of labor before the child arrives.

  • Jobs can create environments sensitive to the biases toward women and ensure they aren’t doing work that isn’t in their job description.

  • We can have conversations about unpaid emotional labor and its consequences in order to reduce stigma.

The Bottom Line 

Emotional labor disproportionately impacts women, and we must come together to make a change. Fighting for policy changes and practicing some of the solutions mentioned above are good places to start. As a society, we also need to start recognizing the value of soft skills enough to pay people for using them. Until then, we should check our own biases and be mindful of who we expect to do what, at home and in the office.

Tags: Marriage, parenting, Self Care

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Written By

Ingrid Cruz

Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer, certified coffee-lover and loves a good joke. She's been published in The Lily, Business Insider, and Stylecaster. See Full Bio

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