The concept of emotional labour is one that is fast rising up the business agenda. In her book Fed Up: Navigating and Redefining Emotional Labour for Good, Gemma Hartley shares her experience of shouldering the burden of "emotional labour". The book resonated with some of the stories I’ve heard while tackling gender equality in our industry through Bloom. I found myself asking: can we apply this concept of emotional labour to better understand the challenges women face in the communications industries?
What is emotional labour?
The term was first deployed by Arlie R Hochschild to describe the "commodified emotion work of flight attendants", ie the work done in managing feelings and behaviours. In the case of the flight attendants, this was to create an atmosphere of continual calm; always presenting a warm smile and having everything under control, even when faced with anger and aggression.
This definition is expanded by Hartley to include tasks that women do to keep everyone happy – tasks that superficially appear unimportant, yet in reality hold families and workplaces together. What’s often misunderstood here is that it’s not just about doing these tasks; it’s about the mental load of remembering or thinking to do them in the first place.
Due to social conditioning, the expectation is that women are wired to perform emotional labour and any deviation from this results in negative interpretations of them. In simple terms, Hartley’s argument is that we should recognise, value and redistribute this invisible workload of both tasks and behaviours, and in doing so this will benefit everyone. As she wrote: "We need to reclaim emotional labor as a valuable skill that everyone should have and understand. It allows us the truest and more fulfilled versions of ourselves – as both men and women."
What does it mean for women in the workplace?
When talking about the impact of emotional labour on women’s careers, Hartley's book focused on how the pressures of home life can steal mental space from work life – and that is something most women (and men) can relate to. That message about tonight’s dinner popping up during a meeting. Remembering to post a birthday card on your lunch break. The list goes on. It’s all the things you need to sort out, while also trying to do your own job well.
Some commentators have questioned extending the definition of emotional labour in this way, arguing that Hartley is simply discussing mental workload. Either way, I think the point is that it’s invisible work performed at both home and work – the type of thing that’s not on a CV or acknowledged in stories of success and which tends to be expected of women.
Mind the trap of being enthusiastic and organised
I’ve seen this reflected in my experience to date. The junior ranks in the communications industry are unsurprisingly skewed towards women. There’s an emphasis on being organised, being enthusiastic, taking notes, making tea, remembering the tasks that each member of the team needs to do. In short, the tasks and behaviours that are expected of women through emotional labour.
This is challenging in two ways. First, this work is not often acknowledged for its importance, meaning the additional workload isn’t being translated into the value that person adds to the business. This can hold people back at junior levels, but it is also pertinent when analysing business success stories, such as MacKenzie Bezos’ "sweat equity" in supporting the creation of Amazon.
The second challenge is whether women can shake off this expectation to be "the organised one" if they want to move up the ranks. The weight of admin and the pressure of needing to keep the peace can preclude the mental space for behaviours that are expected in more senior roles.
I believe this is also linked to the perfectionism that can be ingrained in girls from a young age. The brilliant Patricia McDonald talks about this in her "good girl trap" theory, in which she describes how this conditioning leads women in the workplace to take on the role of being conscientious and organised, which is then validated by positive feedback, and so the cycle continues. It increasingly leads to women not feeling able to challenge or take a stance that could be considered "difficult".
As Hartley explains "women are, in many unpaid ways, expected to keep those around us comfortable at all costs". In Fed Up, Hartley explores how perceptions of women’s behaviour can prevent them from leading; think of the constant scrutiny Hillary Clinton was under during the presidential election. This reminded me of the discussion at an event last year put on by Bloom UK, in which the panel talked about challenges faced by women in reaching leadership positions due to behavioural expectations.
During the evening, fuelled by hearing the experiences of others in the industry, I summarised my take on this double-bind that women can encounter: when women display female traits, these are often not seen as leadership qualities; but when they follow traditional ways of acting, their behaviour can be interpreted negatively.
Hartley concurs that this fear of being labelled "difficult" or "bossy" may lead women to "hedge their statements in professional settings" and hold them back from making bold statements that could challenge power dynamics. This plays into day-to-day scenarios, when women are expected to create and maintain an atmosphere of calm. Displaying what might be described as "passionate" behaviour risks women being labelled emotional or unprofessional. This is typified by the unacceptability and negativity that surrounds crying, which is so often a female expression of unpermitted anger or frustration.
And the flip side of this is that traits associated with strong leadership, but which do not necessarily make better leaders, are those that are generally displayed by men. Our collective unconscious bias leads to nurturing and co-operative behaviours taking second place to dominant and assertive styles, with women needing to choose between adopting these "male" traits or potentially not reaching senior positions.
As Tina Brown wrote recently: "A woman’s wisdom comes, in part, from the great juggle of her life. Until very recently, that kind of wisdom was banished to folkways or deprecated as secondary. But as women step into their new roles, the value of that wisdom is beginning to emerge in unexpected ways."
How to move forward
While to some the issues I’ve described won’t be new, examining them through the lens of emotional labour can be helpful for understanding how they occur. And understanding them is key to addressing the female dropout that’s happening in our industry. So what do we need to do?
Given that the invisible work of being the "second brain" tends to be shouldered by women, call it out, recognise it and value it, so that the burden is shared. And, more importantly, ensure that if people are picking up this work, they are able to progress and move beyond being "the organised one" if they want to.
Break behavioural expectations of the role of women on teams: allow them to challenge the emotional status quo without being labelled as "difficult" and give them freedom not to always need to keep the peace. And when a woman looks "upset", don’t automatically interpret this as sadness; ask yourself whether instead it’s a legitimate expression of passion or frustration.
Reframe expectations of leadership traits to include emotional labour; ensure that this type of caring and emotional intelligence is seen as a valuable skill. And when you hear stories of success, look to to the women around that person to consider whether they are picking up the emotional workload.
Gina Hood is senior account director at Snap London and trustee at Bloom UK