I’ve always considered myself a team player. Help plan the holiday party? Sure. Reserve a conference room? OK. Make copies for everyone? Um, I guess so…
When I first started working, I chalked up these “asks” to being a junior employee and paying my dues. But, as time went on, and I was no longer entry-level but gaining seniority, I noticed that these types of requests were rarely asked of my male counterparts.
A survey called Elephant in the Valley asked over 200 women in tech, with careers of at least ten years, about their experiences in the workplace. Forty-seven percent of respondents reported being asked to conduct lower-level tasks that male colleagues were not asked to do, such as note taking or ordering food. Another study by New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman found that when asked to evaluate the performance of male and female colleagues who either did or didn’t stay to help prep for an important meeting, participants rated men who stayed 14% more favorably than women. Conversely, women that didn’t stay were rated 12% lower than their male counterparts.
Now, at Pellucid Analytics, the bulk of the “office housework” tasks fall to my male colleagues. I don’t think we’ve “cracked the code” of workplace equality or anything. When creating the company, the co-founders were very focused on creating a balanced and open workplace, actively finding ways to support gender diversity and equality. As such, they wanted an environment where everyone could thrive and feel valued. Unfortunately, I would say this approach makes Pellucid Analytics the exception, not the rule.
I discussed this topic with some female friends over drinks. If you ever want to ignite an impassioned happy hour conversation, this topic is a doozy! Each person, regardless of industry, had her own story about being asked to do something that would not have been asked of a male in the same role. While stories varied, the overall experience was the same; in many places, the emotional well-being of the office appears to be unequally placed on the shoulders of its female workforce. What is even more interesting—as I learned from sharing my findings—most men were shocked that this happens in today’s work environment.
47% of women reported being asked to perform lower-level tasks that were not asked of their male colleagues.
I wanted to explore this further and read posts from Rose Hackman of The Guardian, Elissa Strauss in Slate, Sheryl Sandberg in The New York Times and Adia Harvey Wingfield in The Atlantic. I discovered that the unequal delegation of the types of tasks mentioned is an aspect of “emotional labor.” Studied by sociologists for over 30 years, originally emotional labor described the uncompensated requirement for workers to display positive emotions in certain fields, such as customer service or as flight attendants. But recently there has been increased feminist conversation about what this means for gender equality in the office. From running small errands to laughing at the boss’s jokes, is there pressure on women to display certain feelings, or manage the feelings of others, that doesn’t exist for men?
I’m in sales. I understand that I should smile and be pleasant and go out of my way to ensure my clients are happy. In my mind, and I would imagine in the mind of any successful salesperson, this is basically a job requirement. And I enjoy this and consider myself compensated for it in my salary (I know that in other industries, this is not the case). At home, my husband and I—who don’t occupy traditional gender roles in our careers—are still trying to balance all of the thousands of small tasks needed to manage a household containing two small children, requiring lots of conversations about why it’s assumed certain tasks fall either to myself or to him.
However, the workplace occupies a third space. It’s where our personal and professional selves merge, bringing with them expectations from both worlds that mean we conform to gendered stereotypes without questioning why. But question we must.
Are women "just better at these things"?
Part of the problem is that the small “pick-me-ups” and management of other people’s feelings are dismissed as unimportant. I strongly disagree. Having survived a few recessions and tumultuous company events, I know that the little extras of a potluck holiday party or time spent bolstering a co-worker’s ego can make employees feel valued and thus more loyal, indirectly motivating them to work harder. Celebrating accomplishments, getting to know junior employees, and fostering a workplace of respect and appreciation not only boosts morale but are essential components of a successful and well-run business that encourage others to emulate success. Recognizing the value of these efforts is the first step to ensuring responsibility for them falls equally on all managers. Some companies include people skills as a score in performance reviews, so it’s not a stretch to also evaluate an employee's contribution to a positive atmosphere.
Now some would argue that women are “just better at these things,” and asking women to take on the emotional labor work is effectively optimizing talent. I don’t know if women are actually more inclined to take on the role of “office mom”, or if it’s a result of societal expectations and upbringing, but I find it very unlikely that in an office full of intelligent and talented people, only the women are good at organizing events or remembering to order coffee for the morning meeting. I don’t buy that.
I also don’t believe that men don’t care about these things. I’ve worked with a number of men who are amazing project managers and care a great deal about where they work. I know they can plan ahead, are detail orientated, and care about company culture. I think it’s just expected that these things will get done and not questioned by whom.
Perhaps women volunteer for these types of tasks more than they should? Maybe women are worried that if they are asked and say no, they’re “uncooperative” or “fussy”. Or maybe they internalize responsibility for other people’s emotions too much or the need to be “appropriately feminine” and look after others? Maybe it all balances out; I know I never changed a water cooler bottle and, when a client dinner concludes, the first cab to arrive is always given to me. Maybe this isn’t even a problem as some people like organizing parties or solving last minute printing emergencies. But each workplace and each team need to think actively about the role of emotional labor in their office and if it is fairly distributed.
Ignoring the role of emotional labor means another generation of women run the risk of feeling undervalued and therefore unimportant.
Ensuring women feel like equals means treating us as equals. Managers need to recognize and counteract what may be an unconscious bias toward allocating emotional labor tasks to women. Male co-workers need to acknowledge this is an issue and be aware of exactly who is left tidying up that in-office celebration—and is that the same person who tidied up the last time? Was that effort recognized?
Drawing attention to the role of emotional labor in the workplace is important in furthering gender equality. The tasks themselves aren’t going away. Notes will always need to be taken, printouts collated, lunch ordered, broken bridges mended, so it needs to be communicated that these tasks are valued and, therefore, should be equally assigned. Otherwise, there will be another generation of competent, talented women who, as they rise through the ranks, feel that their contributions are undervalued and therefore, perhaps unimportant.
I’m just really scratching the surface of what emotional labor means and how it manifests itself in the workplace. I’d love to hear your stories and if you think there is a male equivalent. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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