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Women, emotional labor and work

women emotional labor

I'm very interested in this concept of "emotional labor." It is when women, typically, are expected to take care of the people they work with -- whether it is emotionally or by doing the cleaning or organizing duties at the office that are not within their job descriptions. I see it come up with female clients, and I have certainly felt it numerous times myself in my past work life.

It is touched on somewhat obliquely in this recent New York Times Piece, Before #MeToo, There Was Catharine A. MacKinnon and Her Book ‘Sexual Harassment of Working Women.’ The focus of the piece, as evident from the title, is sexual harassment and #MeToo. But in discussing MacKinnon's 1979 book, the piece notes that she drew "on the observations of the sociologist Talcott Parsons, who noted that a woman in an 'occupational organization' was essentially a 'wife-mother,' tasked with ego-building, 'housekeeping (tidying up, answering the phone, getting coffee)' and performing the attendant role of 'sex object.'”

Now, this last piece -- women as sex object at work -- has been getting a lot of attention recently with #MeToo. That said, the previous two roles at work -- serving as wife-mother/ego-builder and housekeeper -- have not.

These expectations are out there though. And they strongly shape the experiences of women in the workplace, with important implications.

For example, this study set up male and female babysitters to ask for a raise. Each babysitter had a different level of emotional connection with the kid. Result? "The male babysitters presented without an emotional connection were the most likely to get the raise... In contrast, the female babysitter with an emotional connection to the child was the least likely to get the raise."

Got that? Male, no emotional connection -- more likely to get a raise. Female, with emotional connection -- least likely.

Not only that, but the female babysitter with an emotional connection to the kid also "had the lowest mean scores on the positive traits." In other words, "not only was she less likely to get the raise, but the fact [that] she had an emotional connection with the work led her to be seen more negatively." (Emphasis added.)

According to this study anyway, if you put in the emotional labor, you are more likely to be seen negatively and less likely to get a raise.

This gets to the double-bind nature of the issue. Women are expected to perform emotional labor at work, yet -- if the babysitter study is reliable -- when they perform it, they are more likely to seen negatively for it and are less likely to be given a raise.

Trying to extract oneself from the downsides of the double-bind is no doubt the reason, as the MacKinnon piece noted, Helen Gurley Brown, the legendary Cosmopolitan Editor, believed women should work within (collude with?) the patriarchy. She "encouraged young women to work hard, build careers and run companies, but to accomplish it all by coddling the men they worked with.... [Brown] delivered a playbook for the way young women should understand male bosses that included lessons in making them feel godlike."

Talk about emotional labor.

There is a Zen story that illustrates the double bind. A Zen master says to his pupils: "If you say this stick is real, I will beat you. If you say this stick is not real, I will beat you. If you say nothing, I will beat you."

Given the options presented, there appears to be no way of not getting beaten.

Then one pupil walked up to the teacher, took the stick, and broke it.

This is what needs to happen with regards to expectations of women, emotional labor, and work.

Doorways Employment Law is a virtual employment law practice, leveraging the power of technology to connect with clients in the most efficient and convenient way possible. It specializes in employment law counseling, strategic advice and representation to individuals and businesses across Massachusetts, including on sex discrimination and sexual harassment matters. Contact Doorway Employment Law for an employment law consultation.

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