what it is and why it is up to women in the workplace and at home

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Have you ever been asked to make a cup of tea for your colleagues at work? A recent Samsung-commissioned survey of around 2,000 UK employees showed that this is about three times more likely to happen to you if you’re a woman.

Women are expected to perform more non-work office tasks, such as arranging staff days off and post cards and gifts for colleagues, than men. Even if a woman says no to a task like this, another woman is likely to be called in instead.

Women fear being seen as difficult and are more likely to accept taking on invisible, unpaid work that takes away other responsibilities from them. 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 mental health. This process of managing, modulating, and suppressing one’s emotions to meet the expectations of others or to achieve professional goals is called “emotional labor.”

American sociologist Arlie Hochschild first introduced the concept of emotional labor in 1983 to indicate that emotions have a market and exchange value in our capitalist society. People are expected to regulate their emotions to fit the emotional norm and manage their emotions to ensure the smooth flow of business needed to earn a paycheck.

Emotional labor has never been understood as a genre term. But unpaid invisible work, such as tea rounds at the office, falls disproportionately on women, who then have to manage their emotional response to performing unwanted tasks.

As I discuss in my book Hysterical, this is due to gender stereotypes that women are more empathetic or nurturing. They lack the “status shield” – the social protection – that men have to act outside of what is required of their role. So the ladies make tea or organize the Secret Santa office, and pretend they’re happy doing it.

Act out of empathy

There actually seems to be little difference between men and women when it comes to the ability to empathize. However, there is a more significant difference between men’s and women’s motivation to show empathy. Women are more aware of their gendered social roles and the need to conform to them, perhaps to advance their careers.

Also, while there is pressure on everyone to maintain agreeability and conform to emotional rules, people of color feel this pressure far more than others and have to modulate their emotions far more in the workplace.

Black women need to manage their emotional response to discrimination as well as the expectations placed on their gender. ESB Basic/Shutterstock

That’s because their emotion regulation in the workplace is also likely to include having to deal with racially motivated hostility and microaggressions — small, subtle instances of discrimination that the perpetrator may not even realize they’re doing. The intersection of pressure placed upon them by both gender and race means that this emotional labor is magnified for women of color.

In academia, black and brown women may have to do more emotional work than white men and women. Research has found that black female scholars are challenged by non-black students who perceive them as less capable and competent and give them lower status.

Despite microaggressions like these, black and brown female academics must manage their anger and frustration in order to appear professional because any outburst of anger will only reinforce the stereotype that, in reality, they are not capable and professional.

This work — being on constant alert to understand emotional norms in the workplace, making an effort to appear warm and likable, and suppressing emotions to create comfort for others — all impact the health and well-being of women and women of color in particular.

Inside the house

While Hochschild doesn’t extend the definition of emotional labor to the domestic domain, I disagree. In the home, women often have the responsibility for day-to-day running of the house, childcare and all the annoying organizational tasks.

As they take on these roles, women often also internalize the message that they should be nurturing, that this caring job is their responsibility and shouldn’t seem so onerous – and that they should never complain or get angry, tired or frustrated. And so they suppress all discontent.

This emotional load is never higher than during the holiday season. In heterosexual relationships, much of the burden of creating magic for everyone, especially children, and making everyone feel comfortable and joyful seems to fall on women, even in the most gender-equal families.

What can we do?

A significant part of the responsibility for changing this situation lies with men. They should reflect on their expectations of the women around them in the workplace and at home. Men reading this should reflect: Do you treat women differently from your male co-workers? Do you expect them to carry the burden of tasks that are often unseen and unpaid? If so, step up, face your internal biases, and become an ally.

It’s important for women to learn to say no. It is true that taking a stand like this is another emotional burden for women to bear. But change has to start somewhere.

Or, another solution might be to just make one bad cup of tea and never be asked again. But this is unlikely to change systemic problems for everyone. More importantly, black women don’t have the luxury — or shield status — to fail.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Pragya Agarwal does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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