Woman carrying coffee cups in the office

Emotional labour: what it is – and why it falls to women in the workplace and at home

Have you ever been asked to make a cup of tea for your colleagues in the workplace? A recent survey commissioned by Samsung of around 2,000 employees in the UK showed that this is about three times more likely to happen to you if you are a woman.

Women are expected to do more non-work office tasks, such as organising staff away days and cards and gifts for colleagues, than men. Even if a woman says no to a task like this, it’s likely that another women will be asked in her place.

Women are fearful of being seen as difficult and more likely to agree to take on the invisible and unpaid labour that detracts from their other responsibilities. They may think, “If I don’t do it, another woman will.” And women have to hide their displeasure or discomfort and pretend to be accommodating even at the cost of their own mental health. This process of managing, modulating and suppressing one’s emotions to fulfil expectations from others or to achieve professional goals is called “emotional labour”.

American sociologist Arlie Hochschild first introduced the concept of emotional labour in 1983 to mean that emotions have a market and exchange value in our capitalist society. People are required to regulate their emotions to fit in with the emotional norm, and manage their emotions to ensure the smooth flow of business necessary to get a wage.

Emotional labour was never intended to be a gendered term. But invisible unpaid labour, like doing the office tea round, falls disproportionately on women – who then have to manage their emotional response to carrying out unwanted tasks.

As I discuss in my book Hysterical, this is is due to gendered stereotypes that women are more empathetic or nurturing. They lack the “status shield” – the social protection – that men have to act outside what is expected of their role. So women make the tea or organise the office Secret Santa, and pretend that they are happy to do so.

To read the full article by Pragya Agarwal,Visiting Professor of Social Inequities and Injustice, visit The Conversation.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 22/227

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