International Women’s Day: Examining Emotional Labour in the Workplace

3 March 2021
Ellen Holmes deomonstrating International Women's Day 2021 pose

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #Choose to Challenge but this is not always as easy as it may sound. In the recent weeks, the news headlines have been dominated by the documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears’ which examines the career of Britney Spears, her highly publicized breakdown in 2007, and the ongoing conservatorship which she has been under as a result. The documentary utilises clips from past interviews, from when she was just gaining popularity as a solo artist, to interviews around the time of Spears’ high-profile break-up. When watching these interviews back, two years after the Me Too movement in Hollywood, one of the most uncomfortable aspects to note was the emotional labour that Spears was burdened with; being both sexualised by interviewers, being blamed for a break-up and questioned on her parenting skills. Whilst the content and moral standard of interviews may have shifted in the past 15 or so years, it is arguable that the emotional labour which people who identify as women have to exert on a day-to-day basis has not.

This got me thinking about how this translates into my own working environment. While we may not all be globally recognised popstars like Britney Spears, popular culture is a mirror to our wider society, and we still portray a particular public image of ourselves based on societal standards and pressures. I work in the charity sector, in a customer-facing environment which is heavily regulated and target-driven, phone calls are quality monitored to ensure employees engage with clients in a certain way. In turn, our salaries and career advancement can depend upon our ability to maintain a version of ourselves which is palatable to customers. Undoubtedly, this work would be emotional labour, as defined by Arlie Hochschild in describing how we manage our emotions to display appropriate behaviour in a given situation. Whilst emotional labour is not explicitly gendered or inherently bad, the ability to perform such labour is often seen as a quality of women workers, in line with the gendered notion that women are naturally more nurturing, caring, intuitive and empathetic, and it is easy for this to become overwhelming.

The charity sector is dominated by women – my office alone has just less than double the number of women than it does men. I have observed the concept of emotional labour within my own direct team of colleagues. The women frequently pick up the mental load of colleagues’ birthdays, checking up on the mental health of their co-workers, and engaging in tasks beyond their job description to aid the overall harmony of the team. Many have argued that this behaviour is due to a great societal pressure on women to be seen as both kind and competent, in order to be respected.

Emotional labour can also come from dealing with microaggressions and potentially ‘contentious’ subjects. Whilst it is encouraging that companies are engaging with equality and diversity more readily in recent years, it is important to acknowledge that often this can also bring up conversations with colleagues which require those who it may directly affect (such as the Me Too movement for many women) to perform emotional labour in regulating their anger and sadness to make this appropriate for the workplace. However, ‘women’ are by no means a homogenous category. For example, Sam Siva, writing for Gal Dem, examined how emotional labour is often even more complex for women of colour who are not only battling gendered stereotypes, but racial ones as well. Siva states that women of colour “police our language and behaviour, we take on roles of healing when supporting each other, and we carry the burden of educating in order to ‘teach’ or ‘explain’ what microaggressions are”. This all feeds in to a desire to avoid stereotypes and unconscious biases held by those they work with, such as the “angry black woman” or more generalised, a woman who is deemed as “difficult to work with”.

Precious Sithold is the founder of Beyond Suffrage, which is a programme aimed at increasing the number of women of colour on charity boards. She believes that while expanding your criteria when it comes to hiring employees is a first step to encouraging diverse teams, companies should then be maintaining this commitment to ensuring those that they hire are comfortable within their employment to aid retention.

The challenge I am choosing to make as International Women’s Day approaches is to customer-facing workplaces who need to examine the emotional labour burden which a disproportionate number of women may shoulder, in order to ensure their long-term welfare and progression into senior roles.

Guest Blog provided by Ellen Holmes, a graduate in both Sociology and Peace & Conflict studies. Currently working within the charity sector Ellen has a keen interest in post colonial theory and intersectional feminism. Ellen regularly contributes articles for The Organization for World Peace (a not for profit organization promoting peaceful solutions to complex issues across the globe). 

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