Why Emotional Labor Is a Feminist Issue

If you’ve ever heard the comment, “Well, you’re just better at it,” when it comes to tasks in the workplace or at home, you’ve got plenty of company. And if you’ve noticed this phrase is disproportionately directed at women when the aforementioned tasks involve tapping into emotions in order to get the job done, you’re not imagining things. In fact, this attitude is so common that sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined a name for it: emotional labor.

“Although the term ’emotional labor’ is often used in reference to emotional labor within any relationship, the term was originally developed to describe the work of managing — revealing and suppressing — one’s own emotions within the employment realm,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s issues, tells SheKnows. Manly explains workers in certain professions, such as flight attendants, teachers and health care providers, are frequently required to manage their emotions in artificial ways.

“The bulk of this work falls to women, and this is why the issue of emotional labor becomes a feminist issue,” Manly says.

Why does it matter?

The importance and value of emotional labor should never be underestimated — and that’s why it’s so important men make a conscious effort to pull their weight. Dr. Kristen Fuller of The Center For Discovery sums it up succinctly: “Emotional labor matters because without it, we would be deemed unprofessional,” she tells SheKnows.

As Manly explains, emotional labor in a workplace falls on women’s shoulders “because women are touted as the ’emotional ones.'” As a result, men are consciously and unconsciously permitted to avoid their emotional responsibilities and, instead, place the burden on women.”

This affects power dynamics in the workplace and leaves men in a position of power over women, who are keenly aware of the expectation to express the emotions deemed appropriate. Manly cites “never being too sad, too happy or too fearful” as examples.

She points to one emotion that’s the exception: anger. “This, of course, is the one area of the emotional realm that men feel is their forum. Men are permitted to be more aggressive and angry than a women could generally dare to be,” Manly says. “This imbalance once again creates hardship for women by placing impossible, often silent expectations on a woman to act placidly and serenely regardless of how she might actually feel.”

Emotional labor also comes into play in relationships. Dr. Racine R. Henry, a New York City-based marriage and family therapist and founder of Sankofa Marriage and Family Therapy, tells SheKnows that, in the home, emotional labor involves the work of repairing relationships and starting conversations about the source of tension. Because problems and discord are inevitable in even the best relationships, it’s crucial that one party address what’s not working and why — otherwise the relationship will deteriorate.

It starts early

Henry says that in Western culture, women are conditioned from an early age to feel responsible for emotional labor in relationships. “It begins in childhood when little girls are encouraged to care for dolls and form bonds with others based on emotional attachment,” he explains. “We normalize the idea and practice of men being emotionally inept and place the onus on female-identifying people to do the emotional labor.”

The status quo continues to reinforce the idea that men are emotionally inept and therefore personal and professional relationships will fall apart if women don’t do the emotional labor. But psychotherapist Dr. Jeffrey Glahn tells SheKnows that men do have the ability to be emotionally supportive — and he believes that many men want to be able to express their emotions more freely and thereby do emotional labor.

“The primary hindrance has been the stereotype for male behavior in our society that says that any male who does so is being ‘feminine’ or ‘gay,'” Von Glahn says. “Social stereotypes and expectations do have a powerful effect. When someone gets an urge to act contrary to one, it feels to that person as if all of society is watching and waiting.”

Von Glahn says the best way to counter that harmful message is to actively work to be emotionally supportive. “My advice to my fellow males is: ‘Try it, you might like it,'” he says.

But until the majority of men follow Von Glahn’s excellent advice, women will be left to do the heavy emotional lifting.

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