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Emotional labour: women cannot be the gift that keeps on giving

ByNiamh Anderson

Mar 22, 2017

In the past few years, I have had numerous jobs of varying difficulty – shop work, childcare, gelato scooper. This one is up there, because balancing editing a newspaper with a degree does not come without challenges. Favourite moments so far have included sending the paper to print at two in the morning, only to go home and write an essay, and spending Wednesday mornings running frantically across George Square with bundles of newspapers slipping from under each arm, desperately trying to distribute across campus. Yes, this editorial has descended into an advertisement for any chipper volunteers that want to join us on that delightful task.

But this job, whilst being highly consuming and intensive, is rewarding and worthwhile. It is far from the hardest thing I have done, and it is further from the most emotional labour I have ever put into a workplace.

‘Emotional labour’ is a concept that has existed for decades; it was first introduced by Arlie Hochschild, an academic who coined the phrase in her 1983 book The Managed Heart. Recently it has come back, via online discourses, in pop culture, and even in my social history module. Women have increasingly begun using the phrase to describe an experience they have been living for centuries.

Academically, such as in my module, the phrase has been used to describe a workplace issue. It is the idea that a female worker should manage her feelings to satisfy the perceived requirements of her job, and adjust her feelings to attain the positive experience of a client of colleague. It is the expectation placed upon women to perform more menial tasks; making the coffee, photocopying, all whilst maintaining a positive workplace environment, often at the expense of her own positive experience.

My workplace experiences heavily reflect this. Aged 16, working in a stationery shop, the stern male manager would closely, and slightly disturbingly, watch me through the CCTV as I served customers, coming out of his office to berate me if I did not simper enough. Whether I was successful at my job depended upon whether I, a young girl, was charming enough for his standards.

Aged 18, and working as an au pair in Paris, I spent a year looking after a four year old boy and six month old baby. Whilst it was was incredibly rewarding, I found myself being pushed over the negotiated working hours and into tasks that were never part of my job description. This may have been to do with the line of work, as the nature of au pairing and living with your boss makes emotional and professional boundaries hard to maintain. And yet, I often stopped to ponder the idea of any of my male peers being unquestioningly expected to give so much to their jobs.

‘Emotional labour’ is also a private issue, and as an au pair, the lines blurred. Young girls, brought up apologising for the space they take up, learn to find their uses in the menial tasks of day to day life; remembering birthday cards, writing sick notes for children, or buying new towels. These are the smallest of tasks, but they often fall upon women, and accumulate over time. It is also not limited to the small things – the taking of birth control is much more frequently the responsibility of the woman.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau suggested last week that we use International Women’s Day to “celebrate the boys and men in our lives”. This ridiculous suggestion received a multitude of backlash on social media. What is the point of having a day to celebrate women, if we spend it exerting more emotional labour, comforting men?

In recent months, Scripps College, a women’s school outside Los Angeles, has begun to promote the idea that non-white students should be given monetary compensation for the ‘emotional labour’ of dealing with microaggressions. Educating your peers about their own damaging actions should not be a student’s responsibility, and nor should it be the most draining part of a student’s experience. Yet this is increasingly the case, so a school’s formal acknowledgement of this is necessary.

Last week involved far too many conversations last week with my male peers about why International Men’s Day is, in fact, ridiculous. They have 364 days. Regardless of whether it is happening in the classroom, at home, or in the workplace, ‘emotional labour’ needs to end.

Image: Ivector via Shutterstock

By Niamh Anderson

Niamh is a fourth-year History student, who was Editor in Chief in her second year. She spends her ‘free’ time researching women’s lives and performing emotional labour by explaining emotional labour to men.

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