Women, Work and Emotional Labour

by Jan 27, 2016

Emotional labour – an advantage at low and entry level … but then what?

Emotional labour has been described as “the work of caring” It’s the work that you do when you fake or suppress feelings for the greater good. In the workplace, it takes many forms: making small-talk with colleagues, inviting new hires out for lunch, laughing at your client’s jokes.

For women, emotional labour is a doubled edged sword

Call it Networking!

As the joke goes, “When men do it, they call it networking”

Also known as affective labour, emotional labour is largely ignored, partly because it’s difficult to measure.  Can you imagine filling out a CV with lists of the emotional tasks you perform at your job? Make small talk with clients.  Be friendly towards new hires. Buy leaving gifts.  Fill out wipe-clean dishwashing rota in staff kitchen.  None of that is in your contract, but it needs to be done, and who else is going to do it?

Affective Labour

Some careers are built around affective labour – think of teachers, nurses, and social workers. The issue comes when women find themselves pushed into affective labour which they didn’t sign up for, when their male colleagues get to carry on with the tasks that are strictly in their job description.

Women are far more likely than men to be criticised for insufficient emotional labour.  A recent analysis of performance reviews found that descriptors like “abrasive” or “bossy” were applied exclusively to women – not describing the woman’s performance, but reflecting the way she made others feel.



Do strong emotions at work lead to stress?

Emotions are a slippery subject to research, but studies of affective labour amongst medics has turned up some interesting results.  Contrary to what you might expect, feeling strong emotion at work (positive or negative) does not lead to increased stress.  What really messes people up is automatically expressing emotions which they aren’t feeling.  Think of the “Thanks for your custom, have a nice day!” you spit down the phone at a rude client.  Regardless of profession or gender, workers who have to continually suppress negative feelings are much more likely to want to quit.

We can argue about whether women have a natural aptitude for emotional work, or whether we’re trained into it, but the fact is that women do find it easier.  Men who work in the “human services professions” (jobs such as education, caring, and social work) have a massively increased risk of psychological damage – one Danish study found that they were two and a half times more likely to suffer severe stress than women doing the same jobs.

Like a lot of social issues, emotional labour affects rich and poor women differently.

 Now that traditional blue-collar occupations are in decline, the bottom end of the labour market is dominated by emotional work.  Mining and manufacturing are being replaced by care work and call-centres, and this gives women an advantage in a minimum-wage economy.  To put it bluntly, a working-class woman is more likely than her male counterpart to have been raised with the chatty, smiley set of social skills which are so useful for work.

Emotional Labour – A Double Edged Sword

Emotional labour in the workplace is a double-edged sword.  At the top, it leaves professional women with frustrating extra responsibilities for which they aren’t appreciated.  At the other end of the scale, though, women’s aptitude for emotional labour gives them an advantage in many entry-level roles.


Career Coaching and Skill Development will help to manage your career in a way that will maximize your talents, overcome any obstacles and give you the opportunities for growth you deserve!


Alice Bell Contributor
"Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women's lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life's ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt."

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