Increasing gender diversity within medicine, particularly within the higher levels of leadership has been a stated priority for many years. Women’s professional achievement has been a major part of the public discourse since the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Work-life balance, salary negotiations, and conscious and unconscious bias have been discussed frequently. However, the impact of emotional labor and “office housework” both at home and at work interfere with women’s productivity and their ability to climb corporate and academic ladders.

First, what is emotional labor? Johanna Thomas-Corr defines it as “…the time and energy spent on things considered by society to have no real value but which in fact are essential for functional relationships and a functioning society. Traditionally, a burden placed on or taken by women.”1 These can be direct emotional support like cheerleading a big career move, advising how to woo that girl your friend has been after, soothing a friend after a bad break up, or otherwise being a shoulder to cry on during a bad day. At work, it can be faking an emotion you are not experiencing, whether it’s concern for a difficult patient’s or a difficult consultant’s feelings, reassuring a colleague after a difficult case, managing competing egos, or keeping calm when you are angry. So-called “pink-collar” workers like nurses, waitresses, and administrative assistants have an especially large emotional labor burden. Along with direct emotional care, there is also the work involved in keeping relationships running smoothly, like remembering birthdays, scheduling holidays, nagging to get the house clean, arbitrating fights and disagreements, keeping track of weekly school and activity schedules for the family. There are work place equivalents for this type of emotional labor too, whether it’s bringing birthday treats for a co-worker, leading a committee on increasing diversity without real institutional support, or mentoring students and junior employees. These kinds of things often seem like they “just happen” to the people who are not responsible for making them happen.

At work, women are often expected to take on a lot of unpaid labor. For example, it’s very rare that activities like mentoring students and residents is compensated, but good mentorship is important and takes a lot of time and work. Often women face the expectation that they will be helpful and face a penalty for not agreeing to this unpaid work. They will be viewed as “not a team player”.2 On the other hand, for men there’s the view that, “’Well, of course you should be [compensated]—if they were even asked in the first place.”2 (Williams and Dempsey, 75) Professional women do not face the same level of emotional labor burden as some of those “pink-collar” jobs, but professional women do face different expectations than their male colleagues. Co-workers are more likely to expect women to answer the phone, make copies, or answer questions that they would not expect of men.3 In my experience, hospital staff are sometimes more resentful of getting necessary equipment set up in the room or cleaning up after a procedure than they are for my male colleagues. A female partner in a law firm was still expected to bake a cake for her colleagues’ birthdays.2 In academics, women face requests for manuscript review or research mentorship.

There is an expectation that she will take on this work. In fact, some people are so bold as to impose deadlines on women for such unpaid labor.

Women in leadership often have to communicate in non-threatening ways to avoid being labeled as a “ball-buster” or “ice-queen”. A humorous comic can give you some “advice” on how to soften your language to make it easier for others to deal with your authority.

Sometimes people assume that women are simply naturally better at managing relational issues. That may be true, though I suspect that is much more due to nurture than nature. These activities require a lot of work. In her article for The Toast, Jess Zimmerman said, “Housework is not work. Sex work is not work. Emotional work is not work. Why? Because they don’t take effort? No, because women are supposed to provide them uncompensated, out of the goodness of our hearts.”4 It’s not just that these activities take effort; they also have value, though it often goes unrecognized. These activities are essential for smooth family, workplace, and societal relationships. “Imagine your CV if you included all the emotional labour you do, on top of your paid, domestic and child-caring work: excellent diplomacy skills; ability to juggle a multitude of competing interests; multi-tasker; proven track record in skillful negotiating; can competently and consistently meet tight deadlines. All skills deserving of a hefty pay packet.”5 To be fair, every relationship falls into patterns of “jobs”. We probably don’t notice many of the activities that our partners do. I know my husband’s efforts to keep track of where I put my keys is in itself a full time job. Still, the fact that these emotional skills do require work and drain energy is often underappreciated and is typically not considered in the division of labor in the household or the workplace.

So, what’s to be done about it? Some have suggested charging for emotional labor they perform or an emotional labor “strike”, so to speak. That may be the right solution for some households and workplaces, but for many of us seeing these things not getting done may cause increased stress. At home, it may involve renegotiating the emotional labor workload. You may want to alternate planning holidays and coordinating with other family members or have family members set alarms for household chores so you don’t have to nag. At minimum, it’s worth it to call attention to the fact that these activities are important, they don’t “just happen”, and they are worthy of notice and recognition. Workplaces that are serious about their desire to increase the role of women in leadership should start to take notice of the activities and skills women bring to their work from both their personal and professional lives.


  1. Thomas-Corr, J. “Are You an Unpaid Emotional Laborer at Home and at Work?” The Pool. Nov 27 2015.
  2. Williams, JC. Dempsey, R. What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. New York University Press. New York and London. 2014
  3. Drummond, D. “Stop Physician Burnout—Unconscious Gender Bias in the Workplace—Part One”. The Happy MD.
  4. Zimmerman, J. ‘Where’s My Cut?’: On Unpaid Emotional Labor. The Toast.
  5. Haughton, N. We Need to Talk About Women’s Unpaid Emotional Labor—And Urgently. Jan 14 2016.