Emotional labor: the invisible job
Looking back at my career in tech, emotional labor has affected me more than I realized. My earliest experience was at a tech startup in Chicago when a colleague took a leave of absence. Happy to do my part and be a team player, I volunteered to cover their job duties without a pay increase or title change. In addition to my daily job and newly added responsibilities, I was also fielding countless messages from colleagues and executives for help with everything, from taking notes during meetings to planning company social events. There were many occasions where executives and colleagues told me I was “such a great listener” and even went as far as saying “Why do I need a therapist when I have you?” I also actively spoke up in meetings to suggest ideas, and received “compliments” from colleagues impressed that “I could keep up with the guys.” The messages also included commentary regarding my race. Being Japanese and Mexican, but completely passable as 100% Asian, my coworkers would say things like, “Wow, you’re so loud for an Asian woman” or “I see the Latina side coming out!” They would ask a lot of questions about how it was “possible” that I’m both Japanese and Mexican, and try to make me say things in Japanese or Spanish. Although I found this kind of commentary offensive, I was nonetheless thrilled to receive recognition and praise and felt they meant no harm by those comments.
For the first time, I felt noticed and appreciated. I was the “go-to” person that my colleagues depended on and truly felt that my hard work had finally paid off. At the time, my role was technically a coordinator position that assisted sales managers. However, I was able to transform my role to sell right alongside them and because of this, grow profits year-over-year by over 150%. I had tangible evidence to prove my worth and finally had the guts to set up a meeting with my director to talk about my future at the company. Prepared with a long list of everything I had accomplished, I was looking forward to a fruitful conversation to better position myself for a higher role within the organization. After discussing the first few items on my list, my director interjected to tell me that everything I had accomplished was within the duties of my job. He didn’t think that I had showcased how I would go above and beyond for the team, and continued by telling me that I had “behavior issues” in that I inserted myself into company discussion too much and that I was coming off as abrasive. I’ll never forget the full minute of silence after he said that—I was in shock and at a complete loss for words. He took the final minutes of the meeting to compare me to my male colleagues who went above and beyond to “hit numbers,” and told me that I should be following in their footsteps.
I left the position soon after that meeting, because I could no longer handle the constant stress of my competing job responsibilities. Why was all my work being swept under the rug and considered to have no significance to my male director? Why did I feel constantly exhausted, dreading coming in to work each day?
As time went on and I gained experience in a few more companies, I realized that the same issues were happening almost everywhere. I was going above and beyond to contribute and working long hours to make sure everything got done, only to have my boss tell me my effort wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until recently that I learned the term “emotional labor” and realized this had been my burden for so many years.
The concept of emotional labor has evolved over time. It now has the all-encompassing definition of being expected to do free, invisible work by ensuring that emotions are constantly managed and feelings are controlled.. This type of labor typically falls on women due to the societal standard on what is considered “women’s work,” such as administrative and human resources roles. Women are expected to “do it all” and never outwardly succumb to stress by being emotional, or communicating they are feeling stretched too thin. If for some reason women do not meet these expectations, they can be labeled as “difficult” or seen as “too emotional” for the workplace.
I started analyzing what I had done at each job through the lens of emotional labor. I realized that I was an office therapist for my colleagues and had spent a lot of time on top of my work duties providing emotional support to others. I saw in a new light all the times that I had been told to stop challenging or bringing up new ideas because I was being too “difficult.”. I also realized that I was becoming the educator on all things race. I was categorized as the “token” person of color by my colleagues and would be asked to confirm things about other racial identities that I knew nothing about. Even after learning this, I found myself continuing to engage in workplace behaviors that mentally exhausted me and constantly felt pressure from male colleagues to hold my teams together. At first, I kept telling myself to “just say no” to any work that didn’t directly correlate with my job, but then my managers would bring up performance issues and claim I wasn’t holding my weight, so I continued performing additional labor.
I remember the first time I brought up emotional labor to a group of people I had become friends with at a new job. They related to my story, and added their own personal experiences. We shared stories of male colleagues’ assumptions that we knew where office supplies were, that we knew how to work the printer, that we loved planning office events and that we were happy being a sounding board for other colleagues’ rants. My new friends and I had all been condemned for verbally challenging the status quo and bringing up new ideas, yet when our male colleagues brought up the same ideas they were praised and supported. The people of color in my group also mirrored my experiences of being the “token” representative for race and experiencing discomfort of insensitive racial callouts. The amount of bias that we experienced due to our race, sex and gender identities took a toll on us, and we constantly talked about how exhausted we were.
Although many of these conversations were negative in tone, I began to understand the importance of having a support group at work. Surrounding myself with people I trusted helped me understand that my feelings were warranted and I was suffering from an undue burden of emotional labor.
However, having allies in the workplace is only one part of the solution. It’s also important to create an office culture where people will stand up and call out that behavior. I’m now 30 years old, and I finally feel the confidence to shut down this type of treatment when I see it, if I have consent from the individual experiencing it. Even though being an ally can be a type of emotional labor in itself, it’s the kind I’m willing to take on if it means I can hold space for someone and help them hold space for themselves.
Very often I hear people say things like, “women are just better at that stuff” to justify expectations of emotional labor. When it comes to race, I’ve even heard, “Why Google it when I have a racial Google sitting right next to me!” These arguments can not suffice if we are striving toward a more equitable work environment. Workers need to be creating actionable plans for change, so this happens to fewer women and people of color. One path to emotional equality could be to create official employee resource groups that are able to directly communicate with management and HR in order to implement change in workplace policy. As colleagues, we need to continue our work as allies and stop the use of outdated societal norms as an excuse to engage in marginalizing behaviors in the workplace. I hope we can get to a place where the majority of tech workplaces are aware of the harsh expectations that are put on women and people of color; have put more solid measures in place to shut down bad behavior; and are the example of emotional equality to all other industries.
If you’d like to learn more about the different types of emotional labor, I’d recommend reading these articles:
Sakura Cahero has worked in tech since 2015 in both sales and product support roles. They moved to Portland in May 2018 and were previously a resident of Chicago, IL. When not working, Sakura enjoys intersectional activism and exploring Portland with her wife. They are also the proud parent of two cats named Penny and Moana, and a pit bull mix named Joe. Connect with Sakura on Instagram.