There are lots of unfair reasons women don’t get ahead in the workplace at the same rate as men. There’s the pay gap; the influence of internal biases in hiring; gendered data gaps that assume a male default putting women at a disadvantage (if not in danger). Perhaps one of the most insidious is the expectation for women’s emotional labor in the workplace.
Emotional labor is the invisible work women do to keep those around them comfortable and happy, encompassing both mental load work and emotion management. It holds women back in the workplace by reinforcing double standards, eating away at focused work time, and creating a more emotionally exhausting workday.
Maybe as a man in a mixed work culture, you’ve started to take notice of these subtle inequities. Maybe there’s a woman in your office who is always asked to take notes, whose emails are analyzed as being too brusque, who is expected to pull together all the office happy hours and parties, or who doesn’t seem to dominate much talking time during meetings. Maybe you’ve overheard “locker-room” talk that your female co-workers are expected to brush off as a joke. Maybe you’ve noticed that inflexible work hours push out mothers, but not so many fathers (or maybe you haven’t thought about this, because it doesn’t affect you). All of these situations are borne from the expectation that women will quietly acquiesce to the needs of those around them by bearing the brunt of emotional labor at work.
Of course this doesn’t just happen to women, but women are generally tasked with carrying more of the load when it comes to emotional labor both inside and outside of the workplace, and they are penalized more readily if they push back. The truth is, it’s hard for women to overcome these obstacles on their own. Women can set boundaries and advocate for themselves, but it’s difficult to butt against work culture and still expect to get ahead. In this area, though, male allies can help women advance—they can lift the burden of emotional labor, so their female coworkers can have more time to problem solve within their job description, feel less sidelined by the culture at work, and find the freedom to do their best work.
So what’s a good male ally to do? Well, now that you know how emotional labor can hold women back, here are some steps you can take to help lift the burden:
- Curtail Interruptions. It’s a well known fact that women are more likely to be interrupted (by both genders) during conversation, which means they are getting fewer words in than their male coworkers. One study found that men dominate 75% of speaking time during meetings, often interrupting women to ensure that their points were heard. Many women regularly experience being talked over, or worse yet, having their ideas ignored unless they are rephrased by a man at the table. One of the best things you can do to rectify this imbalance is to curtail interruptions as they happen. Be extra aware when other men interrupt, and make sure you’re not doing it yourself. Speak up when you notice a colleague being interrupted by redirecting the conversation back to her. For example: “That’s a great point, but I’m interested to hear what Sarah was saying. I don’t think she was finished speaking.”
- Listen Fully. Sometimes easing the burden of emotional labor is as simple as keeping your own mouth shut. Listen to your female colleagues so they don’t have to repeat themselves. Take note of the power dynamics you observe in the workplace and ask yourself what you can do to change them given your privilege.Being a feminist ally means being willing to sometimes take a backseat in the conversation and following the lead of women. Listening fully ensures that women’s ideas are being heard, properly credited, and elevated. By listening attentively, you’re ensuring that women around you aren’t expending more emotional labor on your account, and you might hear some great new perspectives.
- Take Your Own Notes. It’s really easy to be part of the solution by simply not being part of the problem. Don’t ask your female peers to take notes for you, to photocopy something you could copy yourself, or to send out summary emails. Don’t expect them to organize all the office parties. If it’s not in her job description, it’s not something you should be expecting of her. Of course there will always be tasks that fall outside of strict job descriptions, but be aware if there is an imbalance in who gets asked to do the “extra credit” workload. It’s much easier for women if a male ally like you is the one to suggest rotating who carries the burden of completing these tasks, instead of putting the onus solely on the women.
- Create Cultural Change. There is still an undeniable expectation that women need to mold to the dominant workplace culture, even if it obviously caters to the single male “ideal worker.” If your workplace places a high value on long hours and lots of facetime or travel, be the one to suggest structural changes that will benefit everyone (but women in particular, who generally have additional emotional labor waiting for them at home). Furthermore, if your workplace normalizes “locker-room” talk or regularly puts women in uncomfortable positions they are supposed to simply shrug off, speak up. Simply not engaging in the behavior is not enough. Toxic work culture thrives on silence and acquiescence, and the expectation for women’s emotional labor means they can’t speak up without taking a huge risk that can jeopardize the future of their careers. Speaking up is an uncomfortable but necessary way to change culture. Simply saying “That’s not funny” or “Why did you say that?” in the face of a sexist comment is enough to upend the comfort and confidence of those engaging in toxic behavior.
- Think Outside Your Work. It’s great to create a workplace that requires less emotional for your female colleagues, but if you have a partner, you may need to focus your efforts on how you’re easing the burden of emotional labor at home as well. Most women feel like they are always “on call” for the emotional labor required from them at home, keeping track of all the details that keep their family’s home life running smoothly. This takes a toll on the focused work they are able to do outside the home, so take note of what needs to be done in your household and start doing your fair share. Don’t consider it easing your partner’s load, but as taking on your portion of responsibility for your shared life. It’s equality, not extra credit.
This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.