The Emotional Weight of Womanhood

How Women are Expected to Do More For Less

  • Madeleine Gendreau

Does “emotional labour” mean anything to you? Emotional work is one of the many burdens women have to lift in their lifetime. The unfair cost of being a woman is rarely acknowledged.

Firstly, you men identifying as feminists—I urge you to educate yourself on these costs. Don’t wait for the women in your life to teach you a semester of women’s studies; it’s not going to happen. The facts are that women have to spend more, financially and emotionally, to fulfill the minimum expectations of their very existence in a patriarchal society.

The pink tax

Abiding by the patriarchy, we have to buy makeup, shave and wax just to fit the mold—that’s just one of a million little expectations of conformity.

Monthly, women buy sanitary products for their periods, as well as birth control or dental dams for their sexual life. Meanwhile, they’re being paid less, thanks to a persistent gender pay gap, and are charged more than men for similar products—the so-called marketing trend of the pink tax. The annual cost of being a woman, without including the pay gap, is estimated at $1,800.

But that’s not all. We don’t only spend more financially. One of the perks of living in our delightful patriarchal society is that men are not socialized to think about how their actions and attitudes might burden and harm women.

Love don’t cost a thing

In 2015 the hashtag #GiveYourMoneyToWomen trended. It was launched to highlight all the unpaid emotional work that women do for men, because women’s time and attention has value—but apparently that’s not obvious.

Our daily energy is spent being empathetic, resourceful and navigating obstacles without any reward for our efforts. We have to be readily available at all times for anyone’s hardships, with no consideration of our own priorities and potential losses.

In 1983, Arlie Hochschild coined the principle of emotional labour in her book The Managed Heart, where she explored the commodification of emotions in the workplace. Among other findings, she includes that service jobs usually require women to handle the customers’ emotions and hide their own. They have to be likeable, fun, look pleasant and mediate conflicts with a smile—no matter how exhausting the situation is. A female professor is, for instance, often expected to double as a therapist.

It is part of what she has to do, while a man acting the same way would be praised and celebrated. This double standard is another male privilege. The expectations are higher and unpaid, after all, emotional work is not considered a skilled task.

Emotional strain does not get acknowledged and isn’t reflected in wages.

Home is where the heart isn’t

It doesn’t stop in the workplace. At home, in personal relationships, women take the responsibility for emotionally tiring tasks. Staying on top of it is draining. Caring, providing guidance, worry work, listening… Women provide constant emotional support to their partners, at their own expense. It takes time and energy, and can leave them exhausted, before ever worrying about their own lives.

So, are we just better at it?

Apparently, men just lack the basic social skills to provide such emotional support to relieve their partners.

Caring, providing guidance, worry work, listening… Women provide constant emotional support to their partners, at their own expense.

Today, no one would dare to say that women are just better at cleaning, or cooking—but caring, noticing, listening are still deemed normal skills to expect from a woman.

In a 2005 study, sociologist Rebecca Erickson found that the burden of emotional work was taken on by women not only at work but also at home, on top of childcare and housework.

“Gender construction, not sex, predicts the performance of emotion work and that this performance reflects a key difference in men’s and women’s gendered constructions of self,” she explained. We engage in emotional work because our gendered culture has made us accustomed to this role, not because of the nature of the female sex. We have internalized our own emotional oppression.

Sharing the workload

A MetaFilter thread discussed emotional labour, and different ways for men to check their own behaviour. Some of the list’s most recurrent items include contributing effectively to planning events, meals, or trips; checking in with your partner’s life and feelings; taking initiative to begin difficult conversations and ensuring an open dialogue; seeking outside help for your own emotional work; prioritizing and supporting the “busy-ness” of their work as much as yours and suggesting solutions to recurrent issues instead of merely acknowledging mistakes.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive—there were plenty more said and unsaid—and the situation is not necessarily limited to cis, binary, heterosexual, romantic relationships. The gendered dynamic is prevalent, and we have to question and rework our education to change the patriarchal society we live in.

I do not wish anyone to put a price on loving and caring. Those tasks are social glue and we should all be partaking in them. I do not feel comfortable having to measure my work and emotional input with the men in my life. I fear to be left exhausted. I want to be loved and supported equally, free from accounting and keeping tabs. I want to be appreciated and helpful, but I do not want to be needed as such. Forbearing, consulting, pacifying and tutoring is not part of my unreciprocated, unrewarded, unpaid, daily job in any of my relationships. Is that so much to ask?

It’s about time men stop being emotionally lazy and educate themselves to be more aware of their environment. It’s about time men stop relying on women, and start being held accountable for their own socialization. It’s about time men stop draining women, and realize that being a feminist ally involves carrying emotional weight.

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