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Men, emotional labor is your problem, too

Research shows that women perform more emotional labor than men at home and at work. In her new book, Fed Up, Gemma Hartley shares why women have had enough, and how productive conversations can help even out the load.

Men, emotional labor is your problem, too
[Photo: CSA Images/Getty Images]

Gemma Hartley is no stranger to emotional labor. The journalist behind the viral Harper’s Bazaar article, “Women Aren’t Nags, We’re Just Fed Up,” had been well aware of the disproportionate amount of responsibilities that she took on compared to her husband. But as she wrote in her new book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, she continued to function this way, until one particular Mother’s Day, she had enough.

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Hartley asked her husband to gift her a cleaning service, wanting to be relieved of the burden of that task. Her husband waited until the day before Mother’s Day before calling one provider and deciding that they were too expensive. In the end, he gave Hartley a necklace and cleaned the bathroom himself. Hartley was left to take care of the children “as the rest of the house fell into disarray.” It was hardly the offloading of responsibility she had asked for.

Hartley spoke to Fast Company about her motivation to write Fed Up, why men benefit from taking on emotional labor, and how women can address it at home and at work. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fast Company: Your book is coming out at a time when we’re seeing a lot of examination of women’s anger. How does Fed Up fit in that broader discussion?

Gemma Hartley: It’s interesting to see my book being discussed with all these other books like Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, because I didn’t really set out to write a book about women’s anger. But it is–it is a book about frustration and anger at the imbalance of emotional labor that woman are putting forward into the world.

FC: You described many “fed up” moments in your book–were there any moments that led you to write the article and make this more than just a conversation between you and your husband?

GH: The moment I described that Mother’s Day in the Harper’s Bazaar article was a catalyst that made me want to advance the conversation. That was the moment I really realized what a toll it was taking in my relationships, and the more that I talked to other women, the more I realized what I toll it took on their relationships.

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FC: In the book, you talked about how difficult it was to get your husband to understand the concept of emotional labor, because so much of it–like making sure that the house runs smoothly–is invisible. How did you finally get to the stage of having a productive conversation?

GH: I think it went back and forth for a while. It’s been a process, and now I feel like our conversations are really productive. In the moment, it’s never going to be an easy conversation for either of us. I think what really helped us was that we were not talking about who was doing what wrong, we were talking about how our culture has shaped these gender roles that we were falling into. When we take the personal attack out of the question, it was a lot easier to examine our internal biases.

For my husband, he didn’t realize I was doing this work. When we did realize, he assumed that I was just naturally better at it, that asking for help is not work, and that I’m hard wired for this type of work. In the same way, I fell for the same biases that I was naturally superior. It was a source of pride for me to be doing it all. I think a lot of women take pride in that, and it’s a mentality that they have deep down that is difficult to shake.

FC: How do men benefit from taking on emotional labor, and how do they get to a point where they see those benefits?

GH: Men will see the benefits when they take it on. For my husband, there were parts of his life that he wasn’t fully present for, both with our children and his work in our house. Taking on emotional labor brings him more fully present in his whole life rather than having his whole focus be on work.

FC: How does emotional labor manifest itself in the workplace?

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GH: It’s the same components, it’s the same managerial tasks that you do to make everyone comfortable, activities like planning office parties, and bringing donuts to meetings. There’s also the emotional component that we do to keep people comfortable, like women making themselves smaller and more palatable for their peers.

FC: What’s an appropriate way for women to bring up the topic of emotional labor in the workplace?

GH: I think you can still bring it up and make your needs known and set boundaries. It is harder for women because setting boundaries is seen as cold and off-putting. But you can say things like, “I can’t do this every single time. I have work to catch up on, how about we rearrange it like this?”

FC: How do men benefit from taking on emotional labor in the workplace?

GH: Emotional labor draws on empathy and caring about others, and those make really good leadership skills. This is why women make really great leaders, especially in grassroots activism. It will help men in the workplace to connect with their peers. I don’t think that there is a downside to men taking on emotional labor in the workplace at all.

FC: It seems that women and men need to have the conversations, and men who let the women in their lives pick up an unfair share of emotional labor need to examine themselves and change that. What can women do when the men in their lives are resistant to changing?

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GH: I think the easiest place to start is by setting boundaries. That’s what we have most control over. Changing other people isn’t something we can do. Our partners aren’t going to change unless they want to. The best thing we can do is assess the emotional labor we are doing and determine what we’re willing and not willing to do.

FC: What are your thoughts on how we make progress from here?

GH: I have a lot of hope for progress. I’ve talked to so many women while writing this book and saw my own relationship go through a lot of changes.

I was surprised by how many different people identified with emotional labor, even though their lives were incredibly different to my own. It really shook things up for me to look at all the research and realize that I wasn’t naturally better at emotional labor. It’s a learned skill rather than an innate one.

It’s going to take some time. But I think because we now have a language for emotional labor, progress can happen much quicker than what would have been possible 20 to 30 years ago. The #MeToo movement is waking us up to this problem, and while we have a long way to go, men are finally open to having these conversations. We are on the verge of change.

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About the author

Anisa is the Assistant Editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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