Emotional Labor: A Hidden Menace for Women that Needs to Be Changed

“Emotional labor” is one of those academic buzzwords we hear constantly but don’t fully understand. Although it can be robbed of its meaning in some contexts, emotional labor is a general term for an incredibly pervasive experience almost all women face. The problem is, emotional labor isn’t the kind of obvious misogyny we’re trained to catch. It’s not blatant and ridiculous, like being paid less for the same work or being fired for taking maternity leave. It’s subtle to the point where most women don’t even realize they’ve been doing it daily for our entire lives. But importantly, once we start to understand the term, we can actually address the problematic concept behind it.

Who coined the phrase “emotional labor?”

“Emotional labor” is a sociological term first used by Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart. It originated in the early 1980s only a few years after the sexual revolution when women’s roles in the home and workplace were rapidly changing. Its original purpose was to describe the emotional management expected of female-dominated jobs like flight attendants, teachers and waitresses. In these jobs, according to Hochschild, women had to consciously and consistently suppress their emotions in order to be considered good at their jobs. For example, flight attendants having to smile through fear on a turbulent flight or waitresses acting friendly toward rude patrons at a restaurant. Interestingly, Hochschild has protested against the expanding definition of emotional labor in recent years and claims it should only be applied to its original technical definition.

When did it become a problem?

Only in the last 50 years have women begun to consistently work outside the home. In most cultures, women cooked, cleaned and raised children, while men hunted, gathered or did investment banking, depending on the time period. We’re decades past women’s introduction into the workforce, and women now account for nearly half of the working population. However, women are widely still expected to perform “traditional” tasks in addition to their paid jobs. This creates a drastically unequal division of labor in many households (although not all), with women doing the bulk of the emotional labor and daily chores once they get home from work. Overall, the result is women having higher rates of anxiety, depression and exhaustion.

How is emotional labor defined by mainstream feminism today?

The usage has been increasing in recent years due to the resurgence of the feminist movement in popular culture. “Emotional labor” today is applied much more widely. Writer Gemma Hartley says, “Emotional labor, as I define it, is emotion management and life management combined. It is the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy.” There are quite literally hundreds of examples, but the phrase is essentially applied to daily expectations of women in the workplace, schools and the home. Often, emotional labor is part of what it means to be a woman in Western culture and in most cultures too.

What are some examples of emotional labor under the working definition?

As previously mentioned, there are literally hundreds of activities women do that could reasonably be defined as “emotional labor.” Essentially, emotional labor is inherent in a lot of the things we do in our daily lives that are considered just part of being a woman. As college students, many of the motherhood and home-maintenance activities usually don’t apply to us yet –  managing schedules, arranging childcare, maintaining children’s wardrobes, keeping a social schedule, grocery shopping, family meal-planning, etc. In college, some of these expectations are things like doing secretarial tasks in group projects or planning activities for you and your friends. Basically, the term has a general meaning and is often applied to things most women experience in their daily lives, but can definitely change from woman to woman.

Why is emotional labor bad in the first place?

It’s important to remember that what one woman defines as an exhausting and onerous expectation, another might be thrilled about. For instance, I love to bake and cook for my friends. Some women, however, might hate the expectation that she bake cookies for her new coworker or neighbor. Women have the power to make their own decisions and have their own feelings about any aspect of their lives. With that being said, emotional labor is an important concept to understand because it often applies to things that women feel compelled to do but don’t enjoy. Emotional labor is an issue because it requires women to expend serious amounts of energy on tasks that may go unnoticed and uncompensated by society. Most of all, it’s a problem because many women don’t even know they’ve been doing it their whole lives.

How can we fix this problem?

The obvious solution is for men and women to share more of the tedious daily burdens of home management, childcare and social tasks without it being seen as some kind of gender-bending arrangement. The tasks mostly done by women are important, and without them, society would kind of fall apart. It’s a matter of women setting clear boundaries, having a clear arrangement for household chores with their partners and learning to say no to some of the extra things society asks of them without guilt. Most of all, it’s about respecting women’s choices about how they want to organize their lives. The day we stop referring to dads with their own kids as “babysitters,” I’ll know we’ve come a long way.

For all my woke-ness and attempts to walk the walk of feminism, I still sometimes find it hard to give up aspects of emotional labor I don’t enjoy. I am proud of my childhood refusals to clear the table at family holidays unless the men pitched in too – as they say, one small step for woman, one big leap for womankind. But still, I catch myself cleaning up after my guy friends or doing all the travel and activity planning with my boyfriend. It’s a hard habit to break, even for a teenager. It would be infinitely harder to give up after decades. Despite the difficulty, ending the forced emotional labor is a worthwhile cause. Not only will it make society more equal, but it could also have huge positive impacts on women’s mental health. Subsequently, a more equitable labor division would allow children to grow up in happier and more stable homes. Dealing with this issue will make all of us more productive, positive and independent. And after generations of thankless hard work, it’s something women deserve.