The men’s guide to understanding emotional labor

The burden shouldn’t be shouldered by women alone.
The burden shouldn’t be shouldered by women alone.
Image: Westend61/Getty Images
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Unless you’ve been working under a rock lately, surrounded only by men, you’ve probably heard of the concept of emotional labor—or at least know some women who have. The term has become shorthand for a specific type of inequity that manifests itself in co-ed workplaces.

I admit it wasn’t until recently that I sought to learn much about it. Perhaps the term’s feminist undertones had always led me to subconsciously dismiss it as something that didn’t apply to me. Maybe I was still shaking off the cobwebs of a 15-year career in the male-dominated world of Wall Street.

As a bro-y yet sensitive guy who cares about gender equality, I’ve always been apprehensive about entering the fray on gender issues. But in a #MeToo world, choosing to stay in my lane to avoid being criticized just doesn’t feel like an option. Deep inside, I knew this was a conversation that I needed to be a part of. And so began the laborious act of understanding emotional labor—and now I’m convinced that this is a conversation everyone needs to be a part of.

What is emotional labor?

If you poll a dozen people on their definition of emotional labor, you’ll likely get close to a dozen different answers. Once upon a time, the phrase had a very narrow meaning (more on that in a minute) but these days it generally (and, to some, frustratingly) refers to what you might describe as “shit someone does that goes unrecognized.”

And usually, I’ve come to learn, the someone who tends to get stuck doing that kind of stuff is a woman.

Who invented the term?

The term emotional labor was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1983 book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. It described the need for workers to regulate their emotions to satisfy their customers (and ultimately, their employers). Hochschild argued that employees, particularly those in service-oriented industries, such as flight attendants, bank tellers, or restaurant wait staff, were required to smile, be polite, and act engaging toward customers (even the most brutish ones), which could lead to them to feel estranged from their own emotions.

A decade later, professors Mary Ellen Guy and Meredith Newman argued that emotional labor contributes to exacerbating the wage gap between genders. Emotive tasks in the form of “caring, negotiating, empathizing, smoothing troubled relationships, and working behind the scenes to enable cooperation, are required components of many women’s jobs,” they noted, yet because these tasks are “excluded from job descriptions and performance evaluations, the work is invisible and uncompensated.”

When did emotional labor get popularized?

The term appears to have leapt out of the staid world of academia into the public square of pop culture just within the past few years. A 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review discussed emotional labor in the classic sense, as a feature of service-sector work. But by 2015, when Jess Zimmerman’s article “Where’s my cut?” appeared in The Toast, the term was understood to cover a broad range of thankless work, wherever it may be conducted.

Zimmerman’s article, a widely shared sensation, thrust the topic of emotional labor into the home—leaving no aspect of marital relationships (yes, even the bedroom) unscathed in its wake. She resurfaced feminist scholar Silvia Federici’s argument from 1975 that housework had “been transformed into a natural attribute of [the] female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of [the] female character.” Emotional labor followed the same path—labeling women as “more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice” was simply a convenient “cultural construct [giving] men an excuse to be emotionally lazy,” Zimmerman wrote.

Ascribing a clear name to a pattern of behaviors, expectations, and injustices was cathartic for women, hundreds of whom commented on Zimmerman’s article. The moment is so forged in internet lore now that, even in the wake of The Toast’s shutdown in 2016, one doesn’t have to look far to find comments inspired by the article, including those in a 49-page summary of the topic cataloged on the community blog site Metafilter.

How does emotional labor play out in modern workplaces?

Personally, I was apprehensive about the new, kitchen-sink nature of the term, particularly as it relates to the workplace. I’d heard definitions of emotional labor capturing everything ranging from organizing Secret Santa events, taking notes during meetings, maintaining a smiling disposition at all times, and mentoring colleagues. For someone looking to turn a blind eye to emotional labor (ahem, men) the term’s expansiveness provided a convenient “out” of the conversation. After all, if everything is emotional labor, then nothing is, right?

As I scrutinized Hochschild’s original definition (i.e. the requirement to satisfy the emotional needs of a customer), I failed to see how organizing the office Secret Santa fit the bill. But there was an unintended consequence of absorbing myself in this issue: I started to realize its pervasiveness, how it had manifested in so many of the encounters I’ve experienced and dynamics I’ve observed over the course of my career. I suddenly realized that there were tons of work done by women who were going unrecognized for it—and this lack of recognition was negatively impacting their career trajectories and compensation, perhaps while even helping my own.

University of Notre Dame sociology professor Jessica Collett told the Guardian’s Rose Hackman that “even in prestigious industries men and women may both be engaged in the same degree of emotional labor formally, but women are expected to provide extra emotional labor on the side.” For example, she says, both men and women might be expected to schmooze with clients “but women may be expected, on top of this, to contribute to office harmony by remembering colleagues’ birthdays, or making small chit-chat to staff.”

And if a woman doesn’t do these things? Research suggests she’s penalized for it, whereas men who refuse this kind of work tend to see no ill effect on their reputations or evaluations as a result. Meanwhile, when men do take on the extra labor, it’s often noticed as a plus (“isn’t he sweet and generous with his time?”) whereas women get no extra credit for it.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg give this invisible work another name: “Office Housework.” In a joint op-ed in the New York Times in 2015, they referenced research that suggested “professional women in business, law and science are still expected to bring cupcakes, answer phones and take notes” and that “women engage more privately in time-consuming activities like assisting others and mentoring colleagues.” Men, on the other hand, “are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors—like showing up at optional meetings.” The result: “women’s communal contributions tend simply to ‘disappear,'” and women burn out faster “because they fail to secure their own oxygen masks before assisting others.”

Why didn’t I realize all this before?

As I read the literature on the subject, a few of my own office housework blind spots were quickly revealed to me. First, I noticed that whenever one of my colleagues would ask for a last minute dial-in ahead of a team meeting (and inevitably someone always does) the request would always handled and answered by a female colleague. (My reason for not responding: “Someone else will.”) A second, more embarrassing example involved making lunch plans with female peers and acquaintances of similar or higher professional stature. Once we agreed on a place, I assumed that they would make the reservation. (Reasoning: I honestly don’t know, but most probably a gendered bias toward the “scheduling” function).

A former executive coach of mine once taught me the mantra “Name it, to tame it.” Her advice was that whenever I felt my stress or anxiety levels increase, specifically naming the feeling—be it self-judgement, fear, or anything else—would make it more manageable.

These days, managing workplace relationships can be a stressful thing. And yes, if you polled a dozen people about a lightening-rod topic like emotional labor, you’d probably get about a dozen different responses, and at least as many definitions of the term. But that’s besides the point. Men, instead of looking for technical loopholes in the definition, just open your eyes and harness all of the empathy, problem solving, and creativity that you regularly use in your job—I promise that you will realize how much work performed by women goes unrecognized. Now let’s go collectively tame it.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote from the writing of Silvia Federici to Jess Zimmerman.

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work.