HomeLearning CenterThe Extra Shift: The Unpaid Emotional Labor Expected of Women at Work

The Extra Shift: The Unpaid Emotional Labor Expected of Women at Work

Originally published by Kate Morgan for BBC

Women largely bear the brunt of invisible workplace responsibilities. The work is taxing – and uncompensated.

In workplaces across the world, there’s labour happening that’s not listed in any job description – and women are performing most of it.

Emotional labour is the unsung, often unseen, job of managing other people’s feelings. “It’s not just the work that runs economies,” explain Rose Hackman, the author of a 2023 book on the subject. “It’s the work that runs families and communities. Emotional labour is manipulating the heart in order to have an effect on clients, customers, passengers, patients. It’s what creates a feeling of safety and connection, meaning and belonging within a company.”

It’s crucial – but also taxing, and often required. Women bear the brunt. To begin, they dominate careers that demand a huge amount of emotional labour. But all workplaces require some, and especially in male-dominated offices, women are the ones doing that heavy lifting, largely without acknowledgement or recompense.

From an early age

Emotional labour-intensive careers tend to be female dominated – think areas like nursing, teaching, childcare, social work and hospitality. While there’s an assumption that women are “well-suited” to these jobs, Hackman says that’s actually just the effect of socialisation. 

“All of the traits and skills and roles associated with emotional labour have always been put onto girls and women, starting from a really young age,” she says. “Girls are not just taught to be painfully other-oriented; they are policed if they are not.”

It’s a pervasive kind of training, agrees E Michele Ramsey, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State Berks, US. “It rolls into the types of games we tend to be socialised into playing: little girls play dolls, teacher, nurse. Boys play much more active and less nurturing games.” 

The impact is compounded by other early childhood influences, she adds. “This has gotten somewhat better, but on television or in a book you’re being read as a child, who is the nurse? Who is the teacher? Who’s the scientist and the firefighter? They’re often very gendered, and from the very beginning that limits what kids think their options are.” 

But traits like empathy and compassion certainly aren’t innately gendered, and research has shown there is no categorical difference between the male and female brain. “There are studies across academic disciplines showing that empathy is a skill that all humans, regardless of gender, are able to perform,” says Hackman. “But it’s become so equated with being a girl or woman that we don’t see the training; we see it as how girls and women inherently are.”

It’s often the internalised basic training, says Ramsey, that leads women to choose careers that require a great deal of emotional heavy lifting.

“It shouldn’t be surprising that more women go into these nurturing roles,” she says. “People who are marginalised have to be better at non-verbal communication; they have to be able to read signals better, because by virtue of being oppressed they are constantly on the lookout for not stepping on anyone’s toes, making sure they don’t say the wrong thing. All of that folds into practicing nurturing in all of our play, and all of our interactions. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when people who identify as female go into that kind of work.”

Beyond ‘careers for women’

It’s not just jobs like caregiving and service positions that demand emotional labour – every workplace requires it in some capacity. By and large, tasks like planning parties, service days and team-building exercises, maintaining relationships, and building community all fall to women within mixed-gender workplaces. Studies show women provide much more of the “office housework” – tasks that are associated with “low promotability“.

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