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Women and their unpaid emotional labour: A Story of Science, Stats and Sexism

Words by Tharushi Wijesiri

There are many instances where men are hailed for doing the bare minimum, as colleagues, as partners, and as parents. With the growing acknowledgement that both parties in a relationship have to share the burdens of their home, more light is being shed upon the topic of “emotional labour”.

It is common knowledge (and statistically proven fact) that in heterosexual relationships, women are expected to balance domestic chores with their employment. In fact, a study conducted on 8500 straight couples between 2010 and 2011 showed that women still do the bulk of domestic chores in 93% of couples. Even when both have full-time jobs, women are still 5x more likely to do the majority of the housework. Although, the idea that women are “better at cleaning” and the concept that men need taking care of is slowly declining, the emotional labour a woman carries in straight relationships is still a largely unaddressed issue.

Equality in a relationship is not solely depicted in physical contributions, like housework, but also in the mental load an individual must endure in order to keep a relationship or a family happy and comfortable. For example, women are often expected to be the ones to remember birthdays, remember what needs to go on the shopping list and “just know” what’s on for dinner. But this isn’t just restricted to couples. As a family grows it’s the mother’s responsibility to carry even more emotional labour, for example,remember the children’s allergies and remember to buy the children new clothes, remember the child’s favourite colour and who their best friends are. The inability to meet these demands is enough to label you a cold and undeserving mother, but it's deemed dorky and funny when the same forgetfulness is demonstrated by the father – I would argue that it is almost expected that they will forget.

The term ‘emotional labour’ was coined by Professor Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California. It was originally used to describe customer service workers who are expected to suppress or regulate their personal feelings even when disrespected by customers. These workers are expected to provide “service with a smile”. Similarities between this scenario and the experiences of a stereotypical house-wife are plain to see. In 2017, US journalist Gemma Hartley linked emotional labour to the ‘life admin’ a woman is typically expected to do. She emphasised how women are even criticised for the managerial position that they hold in a household (even though it is imposed upon them), with many men becoming resentful of the “nagging”.

We are damned either way – if women don’t clean and keep up with the emotional labour then they are termed lazy, but when they do keep up with the emotional labour and remind their partners of household tasks, they’re called nags. You can’t win. What’s worse, is that emotional labour can have a significant toll on mental health. A study by Paul Dolan, a 'love scientist', showed that married women are more likely to die earlier than if they had remained unmarried. He goes on to say that

"[Men calm down], take less risks, earn more money at work, and live a little longer. [Women], on the other hand, has to put up with that, and dies sooner than if she never married. The healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children."

The lack of accountability from their male-counterparts leaves less time for the woman to focus on her own needs. Contrastingly, the man has enough time (and mental capacity) to focus on career development and investing in himself… Much of the public undermines the work women do at home, assuming that measly household tasks like doing the dishes or vacuuming don’t add up to much, but this could not be more wrong. Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that people across Britain do more than a trillion pounds of unpaid labour – women are responsible for 26 hours of unpaid work a week (Rawlinson 2018: The Guardian).

Sudden changes to the relationship dynamic can cause shifts in emotional labour, leading to catastrophic consequences. The best example of this is sickness: a study on partner abandonment in patients with serious medical illness showed that men are 7x more likely to leave their sick wife than women leaving their sick husbands (Glantz 2009). This is often a direct result of gendered expectations in household work, as many men still feel entitled to be taken care of, so when their wives are unable to meet this expectation and they have to step in, they realise that the physical and emotional labour executed by their wives is too much pressure to handle…

What can we do to change this? Many would suggest raising men differently and raising awareness of emotional labour, but I would hesitate to agree. Changing the approach young boys have towards housework is too narrow of an approach. Emotional labour is not a men vs women issue or something we should demonise men for. Sure, they are responsible for their actions and should try to be decent partners but the gendered brain-washing they go through from their parents, teachers and friends is extremely hard to overcome. I’d even go as far as to say that blaming either of the individuals in a heterosexual relationship is victim-shaming. Neither of them, man, or woman, can ever have full control over their perception of domestic work and neither of them can create sustainable changes in how society perceives domestic work. Unpaid labour is exploitation. Since a woman’s capital cannot be measured in the FTSE100 (O'Hagan 2019: The Guardian), be plastered on Time Magazine or be added to a list of ‘#girlbosses’, it will continue to get overlooked until we completely overhauled the system which has been designed to maintain our oppression.

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