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Emotional labour in the workplace: an invisible barrier keeping women out of tech?


It’s a familiar scene we’ve likely all witnessed at some point or another: a colleague is leaving the company, and someone has been tasked with the duty of buying them a leaving present. A probable outcome is that the person chosen to shoulder this additional responsibility is a woman. We might also find ourselves taking the minutes at business meetings, making the coffee for someone visiting the office, or even arranging a whip-around for a colleague’s birthday card.

In order to meet expectations, it is a reality that women often take on many of the daily housekeeping tasks in the office alongside the pressures of their everyday roles. While this is not a new concept, it is a phenomenon that frequently remains unuttered: the surplus emotional labour that women are expected, arguably unconsciously, to carry in the workplace environment, which often goes unrecognised and uncompensated.

Particularly in tech – traditionally, a male dominated sector – this can be a significant barrier to career progression. Only 15% of people working in STEM roles in the UK are female, and only 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women today. Although much progress has been made, it seems like the underlying behaviours that pigeonhole women into specific roles still persist. So why, in an age of #metoo and #timesup, do these tasks still fall into female hands?

Throughout my career, time and time again I have noticed that not enough consideration is given to the trivium of the everyday: the more commonplace behaviours that might have their hand in the fact that there just aren’t enough women occupying the most senior roles in the tech sector. It is plain to see that we are still thought of as more ‘suited’ to deal with the emotional grievances of our colleagues. Like it or not, women are often the chief caregiving figures of the office, always with a sympathetic ear to lend and a paracetamol to hand. Perhaps this belief just comes down to idle sexism at work – the idea that maybe ‘women are just better at those sorts of things’, or ‘well, you’ll pick a better gift than I would have’.

But even if intentions are well-meaning, all of that extra smiling and taking care of others takes precious time and energy, and it doesn’t help us climb the corporate ladder and into senior roles any more quickly. If anything, it detracts from the important work we could be doing elsewhere.

So, what can we do to release women from their office caretaking roles? I believe that it is important to stay conscious of these more casual instances of sexism, so that we can question them, and address them where possible. It could be as simple as asking yourself, ‘why am I being asked, or expected to do this, and not a male colleague?’. Additionally, a positive measure that companies could take to redress gender parity would be to offer additional training for all employees to improve skills such as communication and empathetic leadership, so that the nurturing doesn’t always fall to female colleagues. Or even devising a rota for organising office events and presents might help to assuage some of the burden.

At Studio Graphene, our stance on challenging the gender diversity crisis hinges on always keeping these questions in mind, in addition to taking a ‘proactively neutral’ approach throughout the recruitment process, rather than encouraging positive discrimination.

Owing to this, we now have an inspiring team led by female engineers at our office in India. As a woman in the tech industry, this is particularly heartening to hear, particularly given the rigid guidelines in India when it comes to offering six months maternity pay; sadly, a prospect shunned by many businesses.

The insights of the women working in our Delhi office should therefore offer some reassurance to women looking to get into the tech industry, and the words of one of our engineers, Sakshi Goyal, are especially pertinent. To properly challenge gender norms in the industry, and in the workforce at large, “we need to think both short term and long term, and break down the walls that institutionally keep women out’.

By Christine Brewis is Head of Digital Marketing at app development company Studio Graphene

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