The Unpaid Work of Emotional Labor

Chloe Cushman for The Guardian

Chloe Cushman for The Guardian

According to strain of research in workplace gender interactions, women don't leave motherhood behind when the come to the office; they are the mothers of the office. "Emotional labor" is not a new area of research, but it's definitely one that is an essential quotient in the question of gender optimization.

"Emotional labor" is the "ongoing emotional management" of colleagues' intangible needs, according to this 2015 article in The Guardian.  It is "repeated, taxing and under-acknowledged acts of gendered performance." Emotional labor also refers to the expectation that a worker "should manipulate either her actual feelings or the appearance of her feelings in order to satisfy the perceived requirements of her job. Emotional labor also covers the requirement that a worker should modulate her feelings in order to influence the positive experience of a client or a colleague."

Put simply, it's the outsized expectation that women will be pleasant, nurturing and accommodating to clients and male colleagues.

While many working women might not acknowledge the burden of emotional labor in such stark terms, most women have at one point or another found themselves ordering the catered lunch for a client meeting, smoothing over a colleague's tactlessness or being a sounding board for male colleagues' complaints. Emotional labor is the flip side of women's aggressiveness; when women are "aggressive" or "bossy," their value as a nurturer is perceived to diminish. It's a dynamic we're still not quite comfortable with because we expect women to provide "service with a smile." 

"All the men cry on her shoulder when things go wrong," was the way one employee described the emotional labor being performed by a female executive at a company we studied. The GO Benchmark process pays special attention to the issue of emotional labor by meeting one on one with employees, in single-gender focus groups and by attending on site meetings. To function well, every team needs people who are dedicated to the health and emotional well-being of those on the team. We're looking for that burden to be distributed among all teammates, not just women.