Is the ‘Emotional Work’ of Women in the Office Undervalued?

I recently spoke with a male client about how he envisaged an office with more women. He leads an IT team, and had never in his career worked with more than a handful of women at once, so this was an exercise in imagination on his part! He started by talking about added innovation and creativity, but then mentioned a routinely undervalued factor in the modern workplace. He admitted: “I think it would just be more social and my team would probably be better behaved!” These are all good reasons to ensure your team has a balanced mix, as diverse teams are indeed more fun and innovative. However, this X factor of sociability is not valued monetarily. This “sociability element” is seen as additional benefit – but not something worth paying for.

Improving camaraderie is not valued as an additional skill set precisely because women do more of the “emotional labour” involved in a smooth-functioning team. This point was brilliantly explained by Lauren Bacon in a piece entitled “Tech Companies: Stop Hiring Women to Be the Office Mom” for the online magazine Quartz.

Lauren Bacon, an internet entrepreneur, also hears from male colleagues how they appreciate the ‘civilising effect’ of women. She began to notice this pattern with a male boss who was technically competent but lacked EQ. Instead he hired women around him to improve the office atmosphere. Bacon explains:

“Now, the thing is, looking back on it, I can see that he genuinely wanted his workplace to have those things, and he didn’t know how to do that himself, so he hired someone (female) to do it for him. I think he really did value her emotional labor, in his way. He just didn’t have the awareness to appreciate that a) women don’t want to have all the emotional needs of a workplace delegated to them; b) emotional rapport cannot be the sole responsibility of one person (or gender); c) I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that this woman didn’t have ‘coordinate everyone’s lunches and facilitate office conversations’ in her job description; and d) I feel pretty confident she was not given significant financial compensation for those aspects of her work (even though it sounds like those skills were rare gems indeed amongst her coworkers).”

She describes: “the problem is that while the outputs (better communication, better self-care, a stronger team) are valued in their way, they aren’t valued in visible ways that afford women prestige. The parallels with women’s un(der)paid and often-invisible labor in the domestic sphere are perhaps too obvious to warrant spelling out, but I’ll go ahead anyway: Because we live in a culture that undervalues emotional and domestic labor, a significant portion of “women’s work” (like childcare, food preparation, housekeeping, elder care, and social planning) is uncompensated. And as a result, if you want your company to have someone on staff to ensure everyone is happy, well fed, and comfortable, you will likely hire an “office mom”; that person is overwhelmingly likely to be female; and she is almost certainly underpaid (and afforded less prestige & power) compared to her technical colleagues.”

This wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself-and I’ll be the first to admit that it is damned hard to hire women into technical roles, as I learned first-hand when hiring coders myself- except that there are a couple of complicating factors:

1. Coders are lionized in the tech sector, and are compensated for their technical skills with higher wages and positional power – so women without coding experience are automatically less likely to advance to senior positions or command the highest salaries.

2. There is a culture in tech companies that simultaneously reveres the “user” (at least as a source of revenue and data) and places low expectations on coders to empathize with users (or colleagues, for that matter) – creating a disconnect that can only be bridged by assigning user (and team) empathy responsibilities to another department. An extreme example of this is the frequent labeling of brilliant coders as having Asperger’s Syndrome – and the simultaneous absolution of unskillful communication as par for the course.

So long as we accept these as givens, we will continue to see women in tech struggle in underpaid and under-respected roles while men in tech earn far higher wages and prestige. And we will continue to talk about the challenges of communicating “between departments” without acknowledging that those departments are heavily gendered-and that the paychecks are, too.”

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