Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Share the wealth: emotional labor and the essential confidant

Last week, I started my third year of law school, and the shock of returning to academia for the semester felt like a tempestuous sea on which I was a small rowboat. This particular week was more chaotic that those in the past, however, because my partner Benjamin was also beginning school. We were both lost on the tides of schedule upheaval with no sheltering port in sight.

Ben hasn’t been in school for many years, so this is a particularly difficult transition for him. “Ben’s transition is much more difficult than mine,” I told myself. This is my third year and I should be OK: he is the one that needs the extra support. I tried to give him that 'extra support,' but I struggled because of time obligations and my own state of emotional turmoil. Suddenly, I felt punishingly guilty.

Ben wasn’t wounded by this ‘egregious’ lack of support on my end – he just told me about school, and we talked things through, trying to sort his new priorities as best we could with little time. When I complained about my own transition, he listened patiently, and the listening didn’t seem to disturb him either. Nonetheless, I berated myself for not listening more and for not talking less.

By Wednesday, I was exhausted by my guilt. I mentioned the feelings to my carpool-confidant, Lily. Lily is a brilliant woman with a passion for gender studies, and she had a simple answer. It was a phrase that I’d never heard, but it rolled off her tongue like music to my ears: emotional labor. She said that, as a woman, I was used to doing the greater share of emotional work in my heterosexual relationship, and when I couldn’t live up to the labor I’d become accustomed to doing, I got overwhelmed.

The concept of emotional labor has been around for half a century, but recently came back to the forefront due to sex workers’ online discussion of it as an uncompensated but ubiquitous portion of their jobs. In her Guardian article, Rose Hackman describes emotional labor as encompassing the aspects of life that women appear “to better at:”
[W]e know where the spare set of keys is. We multi-task. We know when we’re almost out of Q-tips, and plan on buying more. We are just better at remembering birthdays. We love catering to loved ones, and we make note of what they like to eat . . .
These aspects of “remembering” and doting, Hackman argues, are not necessarily natural talents. Women have been socialized to see the underpinnings of our relationships and to work harder at maintaining them with support and intimacy. This socialization comes with a cost. As scholar Rebecca Erickson observes,
[o]ffering encouragement, showing your appreciation, listening closely to what someone has to say, and expressing empathy with another person's feelings (even when they are not shared)-day after day, year after year-represent emotion work of the highest order.
As I listened to Lily and later read these articles, I felt so validated! I had never even heard of emotional labor and yet I was living it every day. I had been living it from a very young age, and recall a mantra my mother (an exceptional emotional laborer) taught me in my tween years. When I didn’t feel like being cheery but had to be, Mama taught me to sarcastically think “showtime!” in my head and brace myself. She often used this tactic in her professional life in customer-service (another aspect of the fallout of this phenomenon is that low-wage ‘service with a smile’ jobs are predominantly performed by women).

We recently screened portions of Ken Burns’ documentary Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In it, I saw both women steeling themselves for emotional labor. I watched Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s joie de vivre become feigned cheerfulness when she was under the stress of emotional labor, just as my mother’s would during the tail-end of a long shift. I saw Susan B. Anthony become reserved and withdrawn, the same way I do when under the same burden. These were powerful women who worked tirelessly for women’s rights, and yet they were bound by the same incognito emotional obligations that I am today.

However, I also saw these two female powerhouses help each other bear their emotional labor with respect and empathy, and this heartened me. Though I had been planning to denounce my emotional labor, as I watched Anthony and Stanton, I realized that I like many of the aspects of emotional work I do each day. It suits me.

Instead of pushing it away, perhaps the answer is to remember to share the workload. Women may be programmed to do more emotional labor, but we don’t have to go it alone. Try this today: tell a confidant something you’ve been mentally chewing on, something you wouldn't usually disclose. It can be as small as your shopping list. See if talking it through lifts your burden a bit. 

If you’re feeling really adventurous, go further than sharing emotional labor with those who already know it’s weight. If you identify as female, try sharing your emotional burden with a man.

Benjamin is a great example of a cis-gendered man who is already in solidarity with my revolution of emotional equity. He may not “naturally” take on as much emotional labor as I, but he has his ways of helping with the load. I don’t think I’d ever leave the house with breakfast or inflated bicycle tires if it weren’t for that man. Ben is unique, however. He was socialized as a middle child, taking on great emotional burdens for his family in his youth. 

Ben has also worked in customer service for two decades. Perhaps the next step in the emotional-labor revolution is this: enlist the emotional light-weights in our lives to work front-of-house in busy restaurants. That will give them a high-velocity dose of the meaning of “showtime!”

How do I prevent my pen from being sexist?

Gender-based marketing is a pervasive phenomenon on which a number of studies have been conducted. Some goods like cosmetics or hygiene products are advertised, designed and priced differently based on the gender they target. Several examples of studies and striking differences between products are collected in the following blog post : The woman tax: gendered products and gendered pricing

Products that aim to please women are often made pricier and tinier. Companies using this strategy are thus able to sell more products and charge more for them. Thankfully, more people have become aware of this phenomenon. For instance, the Bic pens "For her" started a controversy on the Internet (see for example the hilarious comment section on Amazon) and on TV (on The Ellen Show). 

Nevertheless, women generally pay more for their products, while usually earning less money. This situation is referred to as "the pink tax" and has been comparatively analyzed with the masculine gendering of products in an interesting previous post

The angle of this post however is to identify ways to reverse the tendency and to look at what has already been done to that effect. Which specific legal tools are in place ? How can we as consumers impact this discriminatory phenomenon? What should we keep in mind while making the decision to buy such goods?

From a legal point of view, State Senator Ben Hueso of California has proposed to 
prohibit business establishments from charging customers different prices for similar or like goods on the basis of gender (Equal gender pricing Bill, SB 899).
The California Senate approved the bill in May 2016, but the project was then withdrawn by Sen. Hueso on June 28th, apparently due to
strong industry opposition from retailers and manufacturers who argued its conditions were ambiguous and would open the way to a wave of frivolous lawsuits (Los Angeles Times, article by Jazime Ulloa, June 29th, 2016).
One might choose to see this withdrawal as a positive sign. Indeed, the California legislature and its congressmen and congresswomen are now undoubtedly informed of the issue and the possible solutions. It will just take more time to accommodate all the stakeholders.

On a related topic, California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia introduced a measure last January to exempt feminine hygiene products from sales tax (AB 1561). That is, to abolish the so-called "tampon tax". The bill is now on the Governor's desk, waiting for his signature. A few states do not tax these products while others, such as New York, are passing similar bills. Actual legal change could very well happen in the near future, so we should keep an eye on it.

From an individual and every-day life point of view, the first step is to be aware of gender marketing. Carefully comparing products made for men or women before buying them or identifying and purchasing gender-neutral products are good ways to save money and take a silent but economically potent stand. Raising awareness and making people think of these unjustified inequalities by simply pointing out the price difference is another idea.

What really matters in the end is choosing to buy whatever one needs while being conscious of the marketing strategies. If one prefers to buy the pink Bic pen, so be it. Yet it would be more desirable to be aware of these matters and not be manipulated into buying it to affirm some sort of femininity rather than just by mere personal preference.