You’re always there for other people — clients, customers and co-workers. If you see a way to make things better, you go above and beyond to make it happen no matter what, whether that means staying late or doing the work for everyone else. Maybe you even accept a heavier workload in the name of "being a team player".
Many women’s jobs don’t end when they leave the office. They’re often responsible for care-taking for their children and handling the household chores.
Studies show that women shoulder the majority of responsibility in relationships, both in our careers and at home. Not only are we underpaid across professions, but much of this invisible work, known as "emotional labor" goes uncompensated and unrecognized. In fact, a recent report from the United Nations found that women do 2.6 times the amount of unpaid work that men do, noting that, "vital jobs like taking care of the children and the myriad tasks that come with them, like picking them up from school, caring for elderly parents, managing household expenses and completing chores like cleaning and cooking," become women's responsibilities.
The hidden costs don't stop when women step foot into the office: just think of how much time you have spent re-phrasing emails so you don't offend someone by seeming harsh or the number of times note-taking has fallen to you in a meeting.
Credit: Gemma HartleyCredit Gemma Hartley
Fed up with her gender discrepancy, writer Gemma Hartley penned a story for Harper's Bazaar last year, titled Women Aren't Nags—We're Just Fed Up. Gemma candidly shared her frustration about assuming more emotional labor in her own marriage. The story quickly viral, sparking a national conversation about gender inequality. She's now the author of the forthcoming book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward which explores the "mental load" women carry. In this interview she opens up about how to spot and manage emotional labor that's affecting your career as well as how the topic has empowered feminist dialogue about how women are socialized.
Melody Wilding: How do you define emotional labor?
Gemma Hartley: I define emotional labor as the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy. It’s emotion management and life management combined. This definition envelopes many other terms associated with this type of work: the mental load, worry work, invisible labor as well as the emotion work described by sociologists when defining emotional labor. Many women find this concept of emotional labor to be a useful rubric for thinking about all of their undervalued emotional and mental obligations and commitments.
Wilding: How does emotional labor carry over into women's careers?
Hartley: The way in which emotional labor affects women’s careers is twofold, because both at home and at work, women are expected to shoulder the bulk of this labor. Women who are performing all of the “worry work” at home are likely stretching their mental capacity to the limit, which can hold them back from doing their best work. In the workplace, the expectation for women to cushion their responses, manage the emotions of their peers and make their workplace “pleasant” can hold them back from doing the work that will help them get ahead.
Wilding: What are common signs someone is undertaking too much emotional labor at work?
Hartley: If you’re the person who is always expected to put together the office happy hour or organize parties, or you find your time being eaten away by people “bouncing ideas off of you” or asking for advice (without reciprocation), the emotional labor you’re doing at work is probably detracting from your career goals. It’s a difficult place to be, because women who let go of the established expectations for their emotional labor are often negatively labeled for not wanting to shoulder this care-based work. Even when it’s clear that the same expectation does not exist for male colleagues, we assume that women are “just better at this stuff” naturally and should therefore be inclined to do it.
Wilding: What can be done to navigate the stress of emotional labor both at work and the "third shift" at home?
Hartley: The biggest way to alleviate the stress of emotional labor both at work and at home is to become clear on your priorities and boundaries when it comes to emotional labor. You need to be aware of when emotional labor is positive or necessary, and when it is not. Emotional labor isn’t inherently bad, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the demands on your time and mental energy.
Wilding: What was your reaction when the Harper's Bazaar story went viral? Why do you think it struck a nerve? How did you cope with some of the backlash that followed?
Hartley: I have written viral articles before, but never anything that viral (it has been shared on social media nearly 1 million times). I was completely taken aback by how many people intimately related to this piece, which is why I dove deeper into the topic of emotional labor and decided to write a book on the subject. I’m far from the first person to explore this expanded definition of emotional labor, but I think my article happened to come out at a turnstone moment—right before Tarana Burke’s #metoo movement resurfaced—and women were, quite literally, fed up with the continued imbalance they saw in so many areas of their lives. Most of the backlash I dealt with was over the fact that my article wasn’t intersectional enough, because it focused quite narrowly on my own personal experience. That is constructive criticism I was able to take into account as I wrote my book, making sure that I looked at emotional labor from different perspectives. As for the trolls and men’s rights activists? Their emails made it into the trash unopened.
Wilding: You've said countless people (both men and women) have reached out to you since your Harper's Bazaar story on Emotional Labor went viral. Can you share some of the impact it’s had? How did it change your own relationship?
Hartley: I think the biggest impact of my article on emotional labor was that it raised awareness around this “shadow work” that women do. I heard from men who were learning about this for the first time and committing to do better. I heard from queer couples who noticed these heteronormative dynamics has slipped into their relationships. But most commonly, I heard from women who felt validated because I had helped to shine a light on the fact that emotional labor is work and furthermore that it is valuable. There is a lot of pain in feeling invisible, and that is precisely how many women feel when they perform emotional labor.
Becoming more aware of emotional labor has drastically changed my own relationship. My husband has endured endless talks about the subject as I’ve written my way through this book, and I think we’ve both come out of it with a better understanding of one another and ourselves. Now that we can clearly see emotional labor playing out in our home, we’re better able to tackle it together.
Wilding: What does work-life balance look like for you today? (if there's actually such a thing as work-life balance period, I'm not so sure.)
Hartley: I think perfect “balance” is a myth. It’s push and pull, but I try not to hurt myself over it. No one ever asks men if they’re staying on top of the laundry and vacuuming while they’re killing it in the office, so I try not to undercut my success by pointing to things left undone in other areas of my life.
The cost of women's workplace emotional labor