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How emotional labour affects women at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Emotional labour is linked to adhering to prescribed gender roles in order to avoid negative consequences. Photo: Digital Vision/Getty

The discrimination women face at work comes in many different forms. If women negotiate a pay rise, they risk being seen as pushy. If they choose to have children, the likelihood is they will experience the motherhood penalty. Women are also more likely to be judged for their appearance and the way they speak.

Women in the UK also effectively work for free for more than two months a year because of the country’s gender pay gap, according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC). They also shoulder the responsibility of unpaid work in the home, in the form of cooking, chores, and childcare.

In recent years, another term been used to describe another responsibility women take on for free while at work. Emotional labour can mean many different things, but on a basic level, it refers to “surface acting” — suppressing your own emotions to make other people around you comfortable.

The term was first used in 1983, when US sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote about it in her book, “The Managed Heart.” Hochschild described emotional labour as having to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.”

Essentially, emotional labour means putting on a fake smile or watching the way you speak or interact, regardless of how you’re feeling.

“When I first started working, I was told you should always leave your feelings at the office door,” according to Hester Grainger, founder of the Mumala Club, a PR and social media collective for women in business.

“So, irrelevant of the type of morning you’d had, whether the bus was late, you’d got stuck in traffic, had an awful night sleep, or an argument with your partner — you were expected to be at your desk, bright eyed and bushy tailed with a big smile ready for the day,” Grainger said.

“I now realise that this is emotional labour. It’s a term that I’ve only heard being used recently, but I can imagine it sums up a lot of how we feel when we are at work.”

While we all have to act a certain way at work to be professional, emotional labour is an issue that disproportionately impacts women. This is because emotional labour is linked to adhering to prescribed gender roles in order to avoid negative consequences.

Women forced to watch how they act and what they say

Research has shown women are treated more harshly for displays of emotion in the workplace, while professional men are more likely to benefit from similar behaviours. A series of three studies led by Victoria Brescoll, a professor at the Yale School of Management, examined the relationship between anger, gender, and status.

“Male job applicants who expressed anger were shown to be more likely to be hired than those who expressed sadness, and they were subsequently given more power and autonomy in their jobs,” one study found.

“However, women’s expressions of anger — because they run counter to social expectations — can decrease rather than increase women’s status and perceived competence.”

Displays of anger from men are often viewed as a response to external circumstances, the researchers added. Meanwhile, displays of anger by women are more likely to be seen as an internal trait — that they’re simply angry women, or out of control.

Another study for Fortune found women are more likely to be criticised at work, with the focus on their personality traits rather than their performance. Derogatory words like bossy, abrasive, and aggressive, as well as emotional and irrational, were commonly used.

Many have pointed out that emotional labour is a problem faced more acutely by women of colour, to avoid the “angry black woman” stereotype.

It’s no wonder women feel forced to suppress their emotions at work. In addition, emotional labour often means women take on time-consuming “caretaking” roles at work, alongside their actual jobs.

“Looking back when I worked for a number of large corporate companies, I often had to put on a front at work and change the way I behaved,” Grainger said. “We’ve all been there where we’ve pretended to be interested in John from accounts’ not so hilarious holiday stories or had to soothe someone’s broken heart over the watercooler.

“But it seems to be women that are expected to be there with sweet tea and sympathy. Men aren’t expected to organise the baby shower for a pregnant colleague or choose a birthday gift — it usually falls to the females in the office. So us women need to start learning that it’s ok to not be ok at work. And no-one has to put on a big smile and pretend they are ok, if they don’t feel like it.”

Importantly, emotional labour impacts women’s work and careers, as well as their wellbeing. Policing language and behaviour is often exhausting and time-consuming, and can detract focus from work — particularly, for example, if you have to triple-check an email to ensure the tone is correct and won’t upset anyone.

While suppressing emotion is often unavoidable, emotional labour can mean letting problematic issues slide — such as an offensive comment, uncomfortable situation, or even sexual harassment.

Crucially, expecting women to behave a certain way — and not asking the same of male colleagues — is not only unfair, but perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes.