Emotional labour, gendered expectations and hope for the future

29 Jan 2016

Emotional labour, first identified by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her book The Managed Heart is defined as emotion regulation that creates a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace. It involves supressing real emotions in order to display only feelings appropriate to the workplace role.

Substantial research shows that women take on far more emotional labour in the workplace (and outside it) than men.  

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Adia Harvey Wingfield wrote,

Jennifer Pierce, a University of Minnesota sociologist, found that the expectations for emotional labor in the legal profession apply to women working in every part of the field. In other words, while male attorneys — generally speaking — are allowed and even expected to be aggressive and domineering, that does not extend to female attorneys, who are frequently penalized if they attempt to conform to these emotional norms. Meanwhile, female legal secretaries described expectations that they would be deferential and caretaking towards (mostly male) attorneys, but male secretaries were not subject to the same norms. Thus, even when women worked in male-dominated positions, the emotional expectations deemed “appropriately” feminine still applied in ways that made it more difficult for women to do their jobs. Once again, the hidden component of this work renders it less visible but no less taxing.

On the face of it, emotional labor can seem something normal and commonplace in an economy where service jobs are so ubiquitous. But as a lot of research shows, the pressure to produce and manufacture certain emotional states can be more draining for some employees than others. When thinking through various workplace inequalities, such as wage gaps and a lack of diversity in certain occupations, it’s just as critical to consider how important unseen labor is in shaping how work gets done, and who gets to do it.

Emotional labour is wound into the gendered expectation and perception biases that impact so many women's working lives. We recently published an article about the gendered nature of words we use to describe men and women at work. Men are ambitious, hard-hitting, confident. Women are communicative, supportive, engaging. Men are rewarded for ambition and strength, women are penalised. 

Yesterday we looked at the way uni students rate teachers they think are men higher than teachers they think are women – even to the point of perceiving faster return on marking - and what happens when those students go out into the world with those biases embedded in their subconscious.

And we saw the evidence of it in the Order of Australia awards, with 70% of the awards going to men, as they have for twenty years. This is not merit, it’s reflective of the number of women nominated, because again, we value male work higher, give it more recognition and expect women to succeed only in soft feminine spaces.

The funny thing is, despite all the reasons we have to stick to the safe path, women are continuing to push back, be loud and firm and unashamedly ambitious. We continue to reject all the premises that tell us to stay in our lane, and continue to push through. In only six short months as Editor of Women’s Agenda I’ve read countless stories of women who refuse to sit back or give up. Not to mention the many stories about  women leading the way on the world stage, and the work they do for women and girls all over the world. 


It can be too easy to feel exhausted, even defeated, by the weight of the forces against us, all those interactions with people who don’t even know they’re buying into gender expectations. But those are the times I look back at all the women who have pushed through and succeeded anyway, on their own terms. Maybe we can’t all be them, but we can all find hope in their successes.

Sometimes that's all we need. 

Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is a former Editor of Women's Agenda.

Twitter: @JaneTribune

Email: JGilmore@womensagenda.com.au 

Blog: janegilmore.com

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