This is the cost of women’s workplace emotional labor

From tone policing to being the default note taker and party planner, the emotional labor women of all levels face comes at a cost to their careers and their well-being.

This is the cost of women’s workplace emotional labor
[Photo: diego_cervo/iStock]

Welcome to being a working woman in the 2010s, where the gender pay gap, scant leadership representation, and negotiation backlash—not to mention #metoo and #timesup—are common workplace land mines. Be sure you regulate your composure so you’re not too “abrasive.” Also, we’re going to need you to do your part for workplace culture by acting as a sounding board, taking notes during meetings and sending us a recap email, ordering pizza when we work late, and planning office events and birthday parties. Oh, and be sure to clean up the kitchen when you’re done.


In the September 2017 article, “Women Aren’t Nags. We’re Just Fed Up,” writer Gemma Hartley sparked a national conversation about the disparity in emotional labor among spouses and partners. But emotional labor also exists in the workplace—and it disproportionately affects women.

Caretaking in the office

The concept isn’t new. The 1983 book The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild, which was reissued in 2012, kicked off the scholarly conversation about emotional labor, says communication expert Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. Emotional labor in its original context meant “surface acting,” or managing emotions to make people around you comfortable. So that may mean putting on a smile in a service job, no matter how you’re feeling. It may mean watching tone in communication, or acting in ways that reinforce prescribed norms.

Diversity consultant Megan Eiss-Proctor, founder and CEO of Heddy Consulting, recalls an instance where a single email message she sent to her team triggered a 45-minute feedback session during which she says her supervisor criticized the tone of her email, which had offended a male colleague.

Eiss-Proctor says the situation was frustrating because she had taken great pains to introduce an agenda to better organize meetings and spent time thinking about the best way to frame the email so that it didn’t come across as too pushy. “And the only way to adjust was to essentially cede my power almost entirely with the suggestion he gave me, which was, ‘You draft it, and then you send it to me, and then I’ll send it from me, and he will feel better about it,'” she says.

The costs of emotional labor

To meet expectations, women often take on many of the daily culture-building and housekeeping tasks, Headlee says. “It includes not only the expectation that women are supposed to take care of emotional needs, but any social activities in the workplace,” Headlee says. “We’re also talking about the extra emotional labor that women have to go through in order to be smiling at work, in order to live up to the expectations of how we’re supposed to behave when we are at work.”

But all of that smiling and taking care of others takes time and energy. And it’s not helping you advance, says pay equity expert Katie Donovan, founder of the consultancy Equal Pay Negotiations, LLC. Donovan works as a coach with mostly women executives and complaints about emotional labor are common. “This stuff isn’t helping us move up the corporate ladder because no one cares about it,” she says. Plus, she says, it’s taking time away from the high-value work that can help women move into leadership roles, not to mention that you may need to put in extra time just to make up for that which was lost.


A previous Fast Company article by Eric Jaffe found that when women violate the behaviors expected of them, they’re often punished. If she’s expected to be compassionate and instead acts forcefully, she’s more likely to be labeled “brusque” or “uncaring” instead of “decisive.” The piece also found that:

It’s a dangerous cycle, says Leah Sheppard, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington.

“It’s hard to know exactly where the problem stems from. Is it that women are somehow just more likely to agree to these things or volunteer for these things? Are they more likely to be asked? There is some literature that might suggest that it’s both,” she says.

But opting out may have consequences. According to one 2005 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, when women and men behave altruistically at work, men are given outsize accolades for doing so. But when women don’t step up and go the extra mile, they’re judged more harshly.

Redistributing the caretaking

It’s time to release women from workplace housekeeping and caretaking roles. Some remedies are so simple that they seem silly, but they work. “As depressing as this may be, you have to make a task wheel, the exact same way as if you had children,” Headlee says. Company leaders and managers need to get involved and make sure that the distribution of this extra work—from planning corporate activities to making the morning coffee—is being shouldered by everyone.

“Once you get a little awareness, it’s a like taking a red pill and unplugging from The Matrix. I think part of it is getting to see a different world that we’re not seeing before. We are fish swimming in sexist waters. When you pull us out of this medium, and you see what you’ve been swimming in, it’s a revelation. It can be quite empowering to not just the women but also to the men to realize what’s going on, and also to give them the tools that they need to show respect to their female coworkers,” Headlee says.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites