Emotional Labour and Women

Emotional Labour and Women

Emotional Labour is not a new term. Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist, first introduced the term in 1983 in his book The Managed Heart. It refers to labour undertaken in workplaces and domestic life involving the management of emotional expression. Hochschild argued emotional labour had a market value in our capitalist society, where people are required to work at managing their own and others’ emotions to ensure the smooth flow of business. It was originally not a gendered term, but over time women have taken up the bulk of emotional labour, in both domestic and professional domains.

Emotional labour is often undertaken in the seemingly simple, sometimes invisible, tasks. In a recent study, commissioned by Samsung, it was identified women were three times more likely to get the cups of tea for work mates. Without thinking, and often uninvited, it is usually the female employees who organise the birthday calendars, the Kris Kringle, allow others to vent, keep a level head and get the cups of tea. This can happen habitually, without conscious thought, potentially becoming a disservice for male colleagues, by seemingly taking ownership of this emotional space.

On the domestic front, emotional labour associated with child raising and keeping a household operating smoothly is usually done by the female. A good example is during the festive season where, even in gender equitable households, the female parent can be often found in a frenzy of physical, mental, and emotional activity in a bid to create that holiday magic for the family.

Why do women assume the emotional labour in the workplace and at home, often unconsciously? It is clearly linked to the years of gendered expectations associated with work, in that work roles were seen and allocated on a gender binary. This is a deeply ingrained social and psychological phenomenon and may now be habituated. We may have come a long way in changing expectations about equitable work, but women have long been socialised to adopt the nurturing roles which require them to be emotionally available. Altering that ‘hard wired’ socialising can take more time.

The cost on women in taking on emotional labour can be vast. It can result in depleted energy, underperformance, insomnia and limited cognitive energy. It can lead to acute changes in cortisol, oxytocin, and heart rate variability which are central to adaptive responses in stressful complex social interactions. By not being able to identify the impact of emotional labour and share the load, women can be left explicably exhausted and unable to express their true feelings. Ironically, the consequence of this gendered division of labour can have a negative outcome for men and boys, as they run the risk of becoming emotionally underdeveloped.

And this issue is not just a matter of gender awareness, but an intersectional issue, between gender and race. Pragya Agarwal, in her new book Hysterical, argues it is in fact people of colour who perform more emotional labour than both men and white women.

So, what to do about it?

The first step is to be aware that emotional labour exists. It is a thing. It is real.

It is important to know what emotional labour is, how it exists and functions in the workplace and home. We need to name it. Describe it. Identify it.

This will help both women and men recognise when they are automatically taking on emotional labour uninvited.

Workplaces need to encourage employees to speak up, self-regulate and ensure that all staff, regardless of gender, take ownership of their own feelings. On the home front, regular check-in’s identifying emotional labour, assumed tasks and equitable distribution of the load would be beneficial for men and women, and dare I add, particularly during the end of year festive occasions.


Birze, A., LeBlanc,V, Regehr, Paradis, E. & Einstein, G. (2020) The “Managed” or Damaged Heart? Emotional labor, gender, and posttraumatic stressors predict workplace event-related acute changes in cortisol, oxytocin, and heart rate variability. Frontiers in Psychology 11, 604. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00604

Grandey, A.A. (2000). Emotional regulation in the workplace: A new way to conceptualize emotional labor. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol 5(1), 95-110.

Agarwal, P. (2022). Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions. Canongate Books. UK

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.