The Emotional Workforce We All Deserve
Emotional work is a topic that is very near and dear to me personally and in my professional work. While it’s recently resurfaced into our national conversation, it’s not new material. The term itself was coined by Arlie Hochschild in 1983 and in the context of her book, The Managed Heart, she was referring to the ways in which working women are publicly regarded by their professional title, but are privately held as the organization's admin workers, party organizers, and resident "mom" of the office in addition to the official duties listed on their job description. Women are frequently relied upon to remember colleague birthdays, purchase cakes, cards and gather everyone around to sing “Happy Birthday” as the men often jump in with a seeming “I’m too busy for this, but [office mom] told me to be here,” attitude of generosity for their time and unintentional effort. For those of you reading this who are thinking, “Hey wait, lady (more on how these “terms of endearment” are another form of sexism later) I am more than willing to help organize and happily sing 'Happy Birthday' when asked!” My challenge for you is to not wait for the ask. See what it feels like to take it upon yourself to say, “Hey, I’d like to be responsible for creating a calendar of our colleagues’ birthdays and I’ll arrange for buying the card and have everyone sign it and I’ll gather everyone up for ‘Happy Birthday’ so that our team members feel celebrated and supported.” And... part II, you follow through on your offer.
Now, I realize that the emotional work that most often falls on women in offices across America is much more pervasive and extends far beyond organizing birthday celebrations, but you get where I’m headed. These disparities in the treatment of women extend into more subtle areas of the workplace (although I’m scratching my head as I write this and questioning how subtle these moments are in reality) like making others in the room feel comfortable by redirecting the conversation when, inevitably, some one says something outright offensive, discriminatory, or uses language that is exclusionary and assumes that everyone in the room is familiar with the metaphor (think, "We need to pull a 'hail Mary' here folks!"). Dare I go even further to suggest that often times, women will speak their mind about the offense, a tremendous act of courage in these cases, and thereby redirect all the negative energy towards themselves for having the nerve to speak up and upset the status quo? Anyone reading this ever been told, “Why are you being so sensitive?” or, “That’s not what they meant,” or “Oh, calm down!” These situations often start with the room feeling unified in the tension created by the offensive or discriminatory behavior and usually result in even greater male cohesion and bonding through their dismissive responses to the woman in the room taking a stand. Doing so and advocating for fairness and respect will often result in further alienating her from a position of equality. I know some of you reading this will have anecdotes of the outliers, those men that work to create an atmosphere of equality and mutual respect in their offices and at home. To those I say, thank you! Thank you for going against the norm and standing with your value system, advocating for people in a position of less power. You are the change makers and you hold a valuable place in our society, alongside women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and the list could go on.
Further, women are often times the emotional laborers in their homes and social lives. They connect family members to one another, they organize get-togethers, make the grocery lists, plan trips, schedule all the children’s various academic, athletic, and social commitments, and so many many more things that make life run smoothly. Again, outliers, keep going! You’re contributing to a cultural revolution around gender roles and we need you. Remember from the challenge earlier, it’s not waiting to be asked, it’s paying attention to and anticipating the needs of fellow human beings, be it the ones you live with, the ones you work with, and anyone in between.
I was at a grocery store the other day, and I saw a woman struggling to get out of her car to walk into the store. Simultaneously, I observed another younger woman watching this happen. She kept her distance trying, I guess, to determine if this woman wanted the space to take care of herself. She slowly walked to the store and lingered while the older woman made her way in. The older woman dropped some cards out of her purse and the younger woman asked her permission to help scoop up the mess. The older woman looked at her and said, “Thank you, I’ve been having a hard time with my arthritis lately.” They worked together to gather up her belongings, the younger woman confirmed with the older woman that she didn't need any further assistance and she walked in and began to carry on with her shopping. Besides this being a beautiful example of humanity and connection between two apparent strangers, it serves as an example of how emotional work is 24/7. I imagine that this helpful bystander had her own list of to-dos, self-expectations, and a set of demands, requests, and deadlines she was trying to juggle for her family or others who rely on her. Emotional work encompasses the known and the unknown. It takes into account the needs of others to feel dignified, seen, cared for and included. We all need this emotional workforce and all of us benefit from it. The problem is that some of us are not contributing to it.
Feel free to engage in the comments section or share with someone who may find this post helpful. You are also welcome to write or reach out to me privately in a channel that feels safe for you.
As always, be well.