Being Women

Emotional Labour of Women – An Unseen Burden At Workplace

The article focusses on the unseen emotional labor women perform at work and calls for women to challenge these stereotypes. By refusing to take on this unpaid labor, they can create a fairer work environment for all.

Emotional Labour – A Gendered Burden

It is well known that the average woman does most of the emotional labour that is essential to the well-being of any household. They provide a patient ear to a husband stressed at work. They often keep track of the doctor’s appointments for everyone in the family, including their in-laws. They make almost every single mundane day-to-day decision about the care of the children, starting from what they’ll eat for lunch to how to acquire the materials required for a school project.

And of course, the dull, thankless, mind-numbing job of coming up with what is to be cooked every day, based on the preferences, dietary needs, season, and availability of raw materials. Those privileged enough to hire a cook, at least get released from the free physical labor of cooking boring, everyday food. But regardless of a cook, the emotional labour related to what to cook, when and for whom, still largely lies with us women. Even in 2024.

But this is just at home. Have you ever noticed how much emotional labour we women are expected to give away for free, even at our workplaces?

Its a trap

It’s not through any formal directive, of course, but through this subtle ball of expectation that is hurled towards us, and we’re expected to jump up and catch it out of our own free will. If we don’t, we get tagged as non-cooperative and spoilsports. If we do, well, we’re just doing our job. A job that’s not our job, though. A job that no one paid us for. Funny, huh? 

The invisible weight

Things got awkward this one time at my last workplace when a very nice, very motherly senior employee left her job in 2019. Unnoticed by all, she had become the primary unofficial emotional labourer of the workplace, cutting and dividing birthday cakes, drawing rangolis, lighting diyas, instructing people how to hang lights and garlands during celebrations, and keeping track of dietary preferences during parties at work. Seeing her do so much, some of us (mostly women) would offer to help her with bits and pieces out of sheer empathy, and she’d assign some responsibilities to us. We’d be her minions. So, when she left, there was suddenly this huge vacuum in the emotional labour department.

A few months after this, it was someone’s birthday, and as the Happy Birthday song died down, everybody started looking at me expectantly, hoping that as another senior female employee, I’d rush to fill in for this ex-colleague and rescue them from this nearly impossible task of cutting and dividing the cake into equal pieces.

Breaking the cycle

I politely refused, of course, mainly because I suck at this task but also because I didn’t want to be taken for granted like my ex-colleague was. Always slaving away doing all this planning and serving, while the nice, well-meaning men stood there chatting and making lame jokes. Of course, they’d ‘help’. But often only when asked and told exactly what to do and how. I simply didn’t want that responsibility on my shoulders.

I knew that most of my then-colleagues were waiting for me to announce, “Don’t worry. I’ll cut it!” and save everybody from the awkwardness of their casually weaponized incompetence. Yet, instead of giving in to the tremendous pressure of all those eyes looking expectantly at me, I stayed put in that awkwardness and discomfort, holding my ground. I refused to be turned into a free tool for easing tension and perform this emotional labour of how to divide that 1 kg cake into 40 pieces. This task wasn’t mentioned anywhere in my job description. It is never mentioned anywhere in anyone’s job description, and yet, it is always expected of women in the workplace. 

Building a Better Future

So, this Women’s Day is as good a day as any to remember that the fight for equal pay doesn’t even begin to consider these innumerable tiny labour who are directly and indirectly extorted out of women in most workplaces.

I’m sure there are exceptions. I’m sure there are a handful of extremely equitable workplaces that don’t pressure women into becoming matronly pillars of complementary care and planning. But even so, there is this overbearing myth of women being “naturally good” at all this, which needs to be busted.

I invite you to weaponize your incompetence too, and simply give everyone a flutter of helpless puppy eyes when asked to perform roles based exclusively on gender. Our staunch refusal to emotionally labour away for free at our workplaces today can help create a better, healthier work environment for many women tomorrow. 

As Maya Angelou has said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

Aren’t we all aiming for a world like that?


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