Women assume all sorts of unpaid roles in the workplace, from cleaning (literally) to emotional cleaning (read on to find out what that is). Gabriella Braun explores the toll this kind of micro gender inequality takes …
Sunlight bounced off the sleek, glass-fronted company headquarters. The modern elegance continued inside. I had come to run a workshop with the senior team who wanted to consolidate the way they worked together before restructuring. As I followed the receptionist’s directions up a bright and airy corridor, I passed young men and women, smiling and nodding at one another. A small group laughed together by the coffee machine.
Further along, I came to an open-plan kitchen where two women executives, one washing up and the other wiping a table, chatted. As a consultant working with leaders and teams, I am privileged to go into a variety of organisations, including all sorts of businesses, hospitals, museums, and schools. I have been in many kitchens and regularly see the same thing: women doing the clearing and cleaning up. Despite its modernity and the relatively high number of women in management and leadership roles in this company, it seemed that in this kitchen the scene was no different from other more obviously inequitable organisations. Women did the unpaid housework.
A memory from over 20 years ago came back to me. Having just been promoted to Head of Department, Mary asked me for coaching. Hers was an internal promotion, which made the shift from colleague to boss harder. But Mary was finding her way with that. What she had not adapted to was the requirement to network with other leaders. She believed this was “swanning around”, not real work. Her boss saw building these relationships as a crucial part of her role and pointed out that it would also help ensure ongoing support for her department if, for instance, she became more “visible”. I wondered why Mary continued to dismiss this as a waste of time. She seemed to want to stay at the coal front, below stairs. Why, I asked her, didn’t she want to come out of the kitchen?
Mary told me that the thought of networking filled her with dread; she didn’t know how to do it. As the only girl of five children, she had always been in the kitchen helping her mother while her brothers played outside. Although she resented this at times, she took it as a given. She met her husband at university, married straight after graduating and settled into her own house and her own kitchen. We thought about the Cinderella role she had learned at home, at school, from literature and the media, and how unconsciously she had carried her kitchen existence into the workplace, where it was reinforced.
Mary is far from alone in taking on this informal cleaning role at work. By preventing the resentment and quarrels that result when unwashed dishes mount up and food goes off, fulfilling this role plays an important part in keeping organisations ticking over.
Another form of cleaning typically left to women, is clearing up emotional mess. “Emotional labour” is a term coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in The Managed Heart, Commercialisation of Human Feelings, published in 1983. Hochschild defined this as when, in exchange for a wage, one suppresses one’s own feelings. Hochschild cited air stewardesses whose perpetual smiles made passengers feel important, and calmed. Back then, emotional labourers worked in healthcare and service industries. They were predominantly women.
Today, the nature of emotional labour has changed to encompass the invisible, undervalued work done to ensure the emotional comfort of others, whether at home or in an organisation, big or small. This work is still largely done by women.
Another form of cleaning typically left to women, is clearing up emotional mess.
Caring, a close relation to emotional cleaning, is another hidden role that keeps the workplace going. Again, this vital work mostly falls to women who remember birthdays, organise presents and arrange leaving parties. They nurture new and inexperienced staff and listen to people’s problems and frustrations. They provide a shoulder to cry on, support those struggling with their mental health and try to resolve conflict.
As a child, I soaked up distress in the family and later in life I automatically did the same at work. Colleagues came to me with their confidences, gripes and problems. I accepted this happily, unaware of the toll it was taking. The time spent on this meant I regularly stayed late to get my job done. It also left me filled up with anger and upset that were not mine, which pulled me down and exhausted me.
At times of stress, I unknowingly absorbed some of the anxiety circulating in the workplace, often unseen and unspoken. In psychoanalysis, containing anxiety, to keep it at a manageable level, is considered key to mental stability. Parents do this all the time; they calm their baby by making sense of and responding to non-verbal communication, so the baby receives the practical and psychological care they need, including feeling understood. As we get older, most of us learn to contain ourselves. But throughout life, in times of high anxiety, we need help.
Without knowing the theory of containment, good managers and leaders instinctively provide containment for their staff. But when they do not or cannot – and sadly that is all too frequent – women tend to be the ones to try to fill this vacuum.
Cleaning and caring come at a price. Taking on others’ stress creates anxiety. Caring for and nurturing staff takes time and energy and causes worry, thus adding further stress and depleting the carer.
The latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey (October 2022), the largest study of women in corporate America, reveals a trend: women have had enough and are demanding more. Women in leadership roles, according to the report, are “overworked and under-recognised”. They do more than men to support employee wellbeing and diversity, equity and inclusion, which “dramatically improve retention and employee satisfaction”, yet are rarely rewarded. Women increasingly want to work for companies committed to these values. They are no longer prepared to be overlooked or at the receiving end of micro-aggressions at work. To get what they want, more women leaders are leaving their jobs than ever, and at a far higher rate than male leaders.
If workplaces changed to accommodate what women want, organisations and all their staff would benefit. This requires change in political and social systems and policy, but a lot can and is happening in the workplace.
Maybe, after the #MeToo movement, and the rethinking of work and our relationship with it that emerged from the pandemic, seen in the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting, another quiet revolution is gaining momentum?
We all need to act by looking out for the micro gender inequality going on around us all the time and the insidious – as well as overt – ways women assume the roles of carer and cleaner, and men learn to expect this. We can also observe our sticking points and acknowledge our own learned behaviours and beliefs. Why, for instance, as women, like Mary, do we choose the kitchen? What inadvertent messages might we be giving others about our ambitions? Or, why do men often seem to slip past the washing-up and pass up on the listening?
We can have conversations about our experiences of caring and cleaning – what these involve, what it feels like to do or watch others do, what it means within the organisation. (By the way, such conversations will fail if we resort to blaming and shaming. We need to talk and listen to each other as women and men and come to understanding and effect change together.)
If we all play our part, this revolution led by women could change the allocation of the hidden roles that keep our organisations going, and help create more equitable organisations in which we all thrive.
All That We Are: Uncovering the Hidden Truths Behind Our Behaviour At Work by Gabriella Braun, is published by Piatkus.
Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.