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Olivia Pope on Scandal is a high-powered woman who nonetheless spends half her days running around the office organizing other people’s marriage proposals.
Olivia Pope on Scandal is a high-powered woman who nonetheless spends half her days running around the office organizing other people’s marriage proposals.

Leah McLaren: Should women be paid for emotional labour? Add to ...

It’s January, a dark, sluggish month I think of as “thank you-card season” – the time of year when emotional debts, avoided or accrued over the holidays, must be settled.

And let’s be honest: They are mostly settled by women.

On the same morning I sat down to write this column, I also composed and mailed seven notes of gratitude for Christmas gifts and parties, posted happy-birthday wishes to two old friends on Facebook, ordered anti-nail-biting solution for my anxious toddler on Amazon, spent an exhausting half-hour consoling said toddler because, yes, he will have to go to nursery school again today, before seeing my husband off to work with instructions to pick up a birthday present of one our son’s school friends.

My husband is always happy to pitch in and help, but sometimes the reality of being the one who always remembers and honestly cares about this stuff can be enough to drive a woman half-mad with resentment.

Unpaid emotional labour is being hailed as the next feminist frontier. In the weeks leading up to the new year, there were various reports on the subject on both sides of the Atlantic, everywhere from the Guardian and the BBC Radio 4 program Woman’s Hour to several prominent feminist blogs.

Outlandish as it might sound, there is a growing feeling that women ought to demand acknowledgment – and possibly even financial compensation – for our voluntary contributions to the larger social order. Beyond the bourgeois expectations of domestic wizardry and formal social etiquette many women admittedly place on themselves, unpaid emotional labour is one of the ties that bind families, friends and colleagues together. These small acts of kindness and concern, performed tirelessly by women around the world, are part of what separates us from the animals.

Like sexual power, emotional labour is one of those cultural contradictions that is simultaneously celebrated and dismissed because it is viewed as inherently female. Why are we the ones who go around office collecting money for a colleague’s going-away gift? Why do we remember the names and genders of our friends’ babies? Or that Joe is gluten-free? More to the point, what would happen if we didn’t?

I’m really not sure, but I do know this: I’d give my eyeteeth to be totally oblivious once in a while. Even in the most stressful times, I cannot seem to block out the urgent little voice that says, “Excuse me, Leah, I know you’re on an important deadline, but have you arranged any play dates for the weekend? Play dates are an important part of early childhood socialization. Also don’t forget to send Rachel a condolence e-mail about her cat.”

It’s not that these thoughts bother me; it’s that there seems to be a distinct gender imbalance in the propensity of women to have them. In an era in which domestic and professional labours have become far more evenly split, why do the acts of remembering, worrying and just giving a you-know-what about the feelings of others still disproportionately fall to women?

The issue of emotional labour is, in fact, one that sociologists have been studying for decades. Originally coined as a term in 1983 by the sociologist Arlie Hochchild, emotional labour has since inspired an outpouring of research, much of it focused on how subtle gender bias in the workplace often sets an unspoken expectation on women to be kinder and more considerate, and generally to do things unprompted for others. When men are considerate, it’s typically seen as a bonus, whereas for women, being kind, courteous and interested in the feelings of others is a baseline. If that baseline is not met, a woman’s reputation, both personal and professional, suffers.

Last year, the American writer Jess Zimmerman made the controversial argument that if women really want to close the pay gap, we ought to start demanding compensation for unpaid emotional labour. The obvious, eye-rolling retort, of course, is that no one explicitly asks women to do all this extra stuff. There is some truth in this (no one held a gun to my head and told me to bake fresh scones for my extended family on Boxing Day), but at the same time, the urgent compulsion women feel to care for everyone around them is largely a socially constructed expectation rather than the result of us just being “nicer.” It’s not just feeling that, “If I don’t send the thank-you note, no one else will.” It’s also, “If no one sends a thank-you note, that’s rude and the rudeness will all be on me.”

Just think of the character MacKenzie McHale in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom or Olivia Pope on Shonda Rhimes’s series Scandal. Both are high-powered women in positions of authority who nonetheless spend half their days running around the office organizing other people’s marriage proposals. The implication seems to be to be that if they didn’t do this extra girly stuff, viewers would find them unlikeable – and maybe that’s true.

On balance, I think emotional labour is a lot like housework – it’s important in the sense that, if everyone suddenly stopped doing it, we’d all become filthy barbarians within a week. But it’s also utterly devalued because women have been in charge of it since time immemorial. Maybe, just maybe, if women everywhere started doing a little less, the best men would naturally move to fill in the gap, just like they have with the laundry.

There will be fewer thank-you notes and more shop-bought scones in the interim, but I suspect humanity will somehow stagger on. So that’s my resolution. P.S. Sorry about your cat.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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