It’s always little things: comforting a colleague, remembering the birthdays, soothing an ego, showing a new employee the ropes. But these little things add up — and for many women at work, they’re fed up.
Rebecca Erickson, professor of sociology at the University of Akron, says it’s a number of tasks that make up the “invisible work” that constitute emotional labor in the workplace.
“These tasks — mentoring tasks, the process of orienting or onboarding new employees, the process of making sure that when you’re in a meeting people stay civil with one another — those sorts of tasks can often fall to the women in the group, because it’s assumed they’re ‘naturally better’ at addressing those issues,” she says.
One example currently affecting women in higher education is that female professors’ office hours are more likely to be seen as “confessional time” — that is, students lean on them for support, but they don’t do the same with male professors.
“Women’s office hours can be packed with people and you’re hearing stories that can be heartwrenching, and you have resources to send them to mental health services on campuses, but in the moment, female faculty members are called on at a much higher rate,” Erickson says.
Lisa Wade, professor of sociology at Occidental College, says there are natural corollaries for this in other kinds of workplaces.
“Depending on what kind of workplace you’re in, I can imagine women being held responsible for a lot more of the emotion work that comes with mentoring,” she says. “Or imagine if a client is irritated, that a team might send in a female worker to go in and soothe the person’s feelings because they think women are better at doing that than men.”
Because this labor is “invisible,” it can be hard for women to shirk these responsibilities. Especially if you’re worried about who picks up the labor when you drop it.
In her own practice, writer and psychotherapist Christine Hutchinson has counseled women on how to recognize the toll emotional labor takes on their energy.
Many women see a clear tie between the emotional labor they carry and the worth they have in the workplace. So when they consider dropping the emotional labor draining their energy, they worry about foisting it onto someone else.
“I do work with a lot with women on being able to build the capacity to make other people uncomfortable,” Hutchinson says. “Whether that’s saying to your boss, ‘We have a company-wide gender dynamic that needs to be fixed,’ or saying to your coworker, ‘Do you mind checking in with Jeff? He seemed a little disgruntled.'”
Sometimes, Hutchinson says, just naming the problem is a great first step.
“Don’t put the extra burden of fixing the problem of sexism on your shoulders. It’s enough to just notice it and feel what you feel about it, anger of confusion.”