A Woman’s Work: Policy Solutions for the Emotional Labor Gap

David Meni, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives, with contributions from Sophie Krensky, Vital Voices Global Partnership

When much of the national media dialogue surrounding the gender pay gap is devoted to overt discrimination in the workplace (or squabbling about how large that gap exactly is), a substantial element of the conversation remains missing – namely, the gap between women and men on the amount of paid and unpaid work performed.


As the above chart from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows, the total amount of time spent working per day is about equal between men and women in the United States, but women spend more of that time doing unpaid work. This persistent gap is a major reason why men can earn on average about 40% more over a lifetime than women, even when controlling for occupation. The inequality in unpaid work “is the missing link” in the analysis of gender gaps in labor outcomes such as labor force participation, wages, and job quality. A major component of unpaid work — and what this post will focus on — is emotional labor.

What is Emotional Labor?

Emotional labor, a term first introduced by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1983 book, The Managed Heart, is the effort required for certain jobs that demand “service with a smile.” Over the years, emotional labor has been expanded to include work performed in pursuit of building relationships, from maintaining the social relations of immediate networks and support systems, to tending to family structures. Mary Ellen Guy and Meredith Newman note that since emotional labor is seen as “behavior that occurs because it is inherent to the individual, it is thought unworthy of financial compensation.” They add that “heavy lifting, to which the same argument for could be applied, does qualify [for compensation].”

Thus, emotional labor is a gendered phenomenon, unevenly attributing certain undervalued tasks to women’s “natural” skills and capabilities. Feminine traits—gentle demeanor, patience, compassion—are counterparts to emotionally demanding tasks like childcare. Even with an increased rate of women as the family’s primary breadwinner, there is still a stubborn and distinct gender divide in the amount of time devoted to emotional labor. Because it exists in such an intimate sphere, emotional labor is a difficult concept to operationalize in a public policy sense. For the sake of this analysis, the focus will be the domestic context, particularly income via the family/household structure.

Emotional Labor as an Economic Force

Emotional labor as a concept acknowledges the labor necessary to care for other people that falls outside the purview of traditionally defined work, even if such work is done in conjunction with a traditional job. But when it falls outside the sphere of waged work, it can look like everything from taking the time to listen to a partner vent, to managing a child’s doctor’s appointments and social calendar. Whether acknowledged or not, these tasks are performed to support the functioning of the greater marketplace.

When fully accounted for, unpaid emotional labor constitutes an essential part of national economies. Debbie Budlender of the UN Research Institute for Social Development found that if the productivity of unpaid care work was properly included in economic analyses, it would constitute upwards of 40% of GDP, even in developed nations like Switzerland.

Indeed, the booming business of childcare suggests there is a real market price for these tasks, but when exercised in the confines of the home, emotional labor is not recognized as a) “real” labor or b) valuable labor worth an income. Legitimizing this labor is an important step towards a more equitable economic system, and stands to benefit marginalized populations, as women of color are more likely to have dual responsibility as primary caregiver and breadwinner in their families.

The Data Problem

Any resolution to gender disparities in the labor market must tackle the issue of emotional labor. However, there is a dearth of specific and reliable data on such labor and its role in economies, aside from time-use surveys like the one maintained by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Essentially, any potential policy solution to correct for the inequalities presented by unpaid emotional labor runs into a kind of ecological fallacy. Since tax and welfare policy is directed at the household level, there is no guarantee that any provision intended to address inequalities in unpaid labor would go directly to the intended individuals within the household.

In the book Taxes are a Women’s Issue, Mimi Abramovitz and Sandra Morgen further explain the problem:

“Public policy debates typically marginalize women’s experiences. Very little published tax information is broken down by gender, race, or ethnicity. Information about women as taxpayers, the tax contribution of wives, the tax benefits received by women, or many other gender-related details are generally not available. Without good, accurate data, scholars and policymakers don’t have the tools to analyze tax policies or design fair and viable tax systems.”

Making it a national priority to publish the kind of tax and labor data that Abramovitz & Morgen recommend will go a long way towards more targeted and effective policy.

What Does Feminist Tax and Welfare Policy Look Like?

There are two main approaches that can impact the inequality in emotional labor.First are policies that encourage a more even gender distribution of unpaid labor; these sorts of policies have recently gained traction, like the paid family leave proposal currently making its way through the DC city council.

A second approach would be to craft tax and welfare policy in the United States to properly value labor that is currently unpaid. Below are two examples of such policies:

Amending the Child Tax Credit (CTC)

Currently, the CTC exempts tax filers up to $1,000 per child, depending on household income. The amount of this credit is arbitrary, but its justification has been rooted in benefits to the child. Making children the focal point in policy around the CTC eliminates the crucial link between additional income/wealth and children’s well-being: the labor of a caregiver. If the CTC can be reformulated to recognize primary caregivers as the financial channel, it would go a long way towards legitimizing the value of emotional labor.

If the CTC were calculated as a valuation of the average time devoted to emotional labor around children, the credit would look very different: applying the federal minimum wage to BLS time use data would raise the average value of the CTC to about $5,000 per year.

Wage Insurance

A policy like the wage insurance proposal in President Obama’s FY 2017 budget also has the potential  to account for and value emotional labor. Studies show that women see a decline in their income after giving birth to children, while male earnings are positively correlated with number of children. This effect may have to do both with the impact of unpaid emotional labor and outright discrimination against mothers in hiring and wages: “The Motherhood Penalty,” as a group of Cornell University researches calls it.

While wage insurance was designed largely to help displaced industrial workers, it could also properly value the shift in work — and the resulting loss in wages — of women post-childbirth. By at least maintaining the wages of parents before they have children, it would value those who either decide or are obligated to shift some of their distribution of labor from “traditional” work to informal, emotional labor.

While emotional labor continues to gain traction as a theoretical concept, it remains a blind spot for public policy and economic research. While more concrete data is needed to study the issue, there are existing policy frameworks that create an institutional recognition of this type of labor. Any plan that aims to rectify the gender pay gap would be incomplete without a consideration of emotional labor.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s