Invisible labor, emotional labor, mental load. All these terms refer to a common phenomenon experienced primarily by women in the workplace. And though the conversation around these issues has begun, there is much more visibility and change needed.
For the first time, I’m writing a series of blog posts on a single subject. I believe the topic of women’s unique burden in the workplace is worth exploring in greater depth than one post allows. That’s why, as many of us continue to work from home, I’ll be taking a few weeks to focus on women and how they work for home. This week, I’ll outline some of the key elements of this gendered experience and why COVID-19 has heightened the crisis for working women. In future weeks, I’ll shift my focus to strategies and solutions that can shape the future.
Paying Attention to Unpaid Labor
It’s important to note that women’s burden in the workplace starts at home. As this recent Forbes article points out, women tend to shoulder the primary responsibility for both invisible labor and visible tasks at home. Visible tasks are easier to see getting done, but the inequity and gendered impact of them might not be as obvious. Take child-rearing, for instance. In a two-parent home, one might think both parents would share equal responsibilities. As the research indicates, that’s not the case.
This study of hundreds of American women in partnerships and raising children under 18 years of age found that most of these women report taking more responsibility for their children’s academic and socioemotional needs than their partners. About 80% of women reported being the parent in direct contact with their children’s school administrators, and about two-thirds of mothers reported feeling more responsible for their children’s emotional wellness. If that doesn’t seem like a problem, keep reading. Women who reported a higher sense of primary responsibility for their children’s emotional wellbeing also reported lower satisfaction with their lives and relationships. That’s a disturbing finding in a society where the majority of women do take primary responsibility for tasks like child-rearing.
On top of that, there’s the invisible labor women take on at home. As one author explains, this is the kind of work that would be called project management in the workplace. Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology, describes some examples of this labor in her article for Money.com. She includes organization, scheduling, tracking all individuals’ preferences and needs, and coordinating in this category. That same study cited above found that 90% of women in partnerships reported being solely responsible for their family’s scheduling, and that role was correlated with overwhelming feelings, exhaustion, and a lack of personal time.
That’s all in play even before a woman shows up at work.
Emotional Labor at Work
Once in the workplace, women find similar expectations placed upon them. As Rebecca Erickson, professor of sociology, points out in this article for CNN, women are tasked with much of the emotional labor in the office as well as at home. Women in the workplace are asked more frequently than men to handle tasks like mentoring newcomers and tending to socioemotional needs. For instance, women professors tend to receive more office hour visits from students with concerns about their psychological well being than do men professors, whose office hours are viewed as primarily academic spaces.
There’s nothing wrong with employees taking time to mentor, advise, and support. But when women take on significantly more of this work than their men counterparts, they disadvantage themselves. Not only are they investing large amounts of time into activities that benefit the organization for essentially no charge, they’re taking time away from fulfilling their own duties better. That’s an issue addressed extensively in this interview with author Gemma Hartley, an outspoken voice in the dialogue about emotional labor in the workplace. She describes how taking on care-based work in the workplace holds women back in their careers. And indeed, women are holding themselves back.
Why Women Stay Invisible in the Workplace
What this HBR article describes as “office housework,” using a term coined by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, contributes to women’s striking invisibility in the workplace. This 2017 report from McKinsey, aptly named “Time to Accelerate,” highlights the “Slow Progress” observed in ten years of research on women’s participation in the workplace. In its analysis of 50 top companies, the report finds that less than 20% of corporate board members are women, and hardly more than 10% of executive committee members are women. That’s a pretty recent finding that surprises me, given the prevalence of feminist dialogue in the past decade. Of course, maybe it shouldn’t.
This HBR article describes women as staying “out of the spotlight” intentionally, for four key reasons. First, women tend to focus on serving their team or organization rather than promoting their individual careers. That’s a trend I discussed in my earlier post on groups in the workplace. So, if “office housework” is what the team needs, women step up to the plate more. Second, many women identify with this caregiving role more than with the aggressive self-promoting career-person stereotype. These women will admit to staying somewhat invisible at work because it would feel inauthentic to be bolder. On the other hand, those women who do step up and speak out often experience backlash for violating a gendered expectation. These women admit to self-monitoring and practicing “intentional invisibility” to avoid that backlash from coworkers. And finally, in light of women’s tremendous invisible load at home, many women avoid risk-taking at work to ensure their stable presence at home. They often embrace flexible, behind-the-scenes roles and shy away from pivotal, more public roles or projects. For all these reasons, women who are working hard at work don’t get the recognition or promotion they deserve.
COVID-19 as a Catalyst for Crisis
As if all that weren’t enough, the pandemic has become the cherry on top. I encourage you to listen to this podcast from April about how the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching women even further. Women from around the world describe rising stress around pressures to “keep tabs on everyone” and constantly perform “emotional triage” in their caregiving roles. On top of that, working women feel ashamed to be taking advantage of accommodations allowing them to balance work and home, even when their workplaces do recognize this. One woman mentioned that she felt further pressure to bury her stress and focus on supporting others because she feels fortunate to even have work in these times. Yet another described how moving in with her mother exposed her to cultural pressures to focus on being a homemaker despite her burgeoning career.
The litany of pressures seems to go on forever, and for many women, that’s really how it is. So, is there anything we as working women, their partners, or their workplace leaders can do? Yes! Stay tuned for next week’s blog, focused exclusively on shifting the load.