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“I think it’s good to hire for a balance in the team rather than individual skills. I like to have a balance of men and women in the team because I think women are naturally better at some of those skills which men don’t have and it rounds out the team’s capabilities.”
This was the pronouncement of a well-meaning man at a conference I attended recently, one where the gender imbalance among participants had been noted by more than one attendee and speaker. Here was a man who recognised the problem of gendered privilege, not just at this conference but in the wider working world, and who was doing his best to proactively create change in his organisation. But this is not the way forward.
The problem with this man's idea is that it puts the burden of ‘those skills’ on women in the team rather than encouraging men to step up and learn. This is the perfect example of the well-documented minefield of emotional labour, which is disproportionately piled on women both in and outside the workplace. Saying that the skills are represented in the team when women are there means there is no incentive for men to learn them. Saying that treats these as essential traits which are categorically part of some people's nature and not other's, rather than skills which can be learned. This perpetuates a continuing cycle of gendered expectations where, in addition to their stated duties, women are expected to pick up the slack of ensuring everyone feels comfortable. That birthdays are remembered. That an irritable colleague's temper is soothed. That the new team member gets settled in okay.
Men who do these things are noted for them and rewarded in praise or power--but for most women, this unstated expectation comes with no additional compensation. Yes, we need a balance of ‘those skills’ in the team, in the workplace and in the world at large--but men should be picking that stuff up as much as women. Don’t fall into the trap of creating emotional or cognitive burden for your women, trans, or nonbinary staff that you wouldn’t expect of men.
So as an ally who wants to dismantle harmful gender hierarchies of power, what can you do?
Above all, listen. If (when) your staff calls out problematic emotional labor practices within the team, do your homework. Do not let the burden of fixing the problem continue to rest on them alone. Search the internet for 'emotional labor'. Search for 'cognitive burden'. Go to conferences and meetups about gender bias in the workplace. Look for organisations who are working to eradicate gender bias. This article is a good start. You can do more.
Second, recognise that this labor is necessary to the success of your team and your business. Once 'those skills' are openly recognised as a necessary part of the team's tasks, it's easier to talk about how the job gets done without assuming that this will 'naturally' get picked up by women. Who is currently doing it? Who should be doing it? In what way is this task done or not done by the team?
Feeling really radical? Identify specific emotional competencies required in your team or in individual roles. Do this in the same way that you identify other skilled work in job descriptions. Tie it to money or status in the organisation in the same way that other skilled work is. Make it part of your performance review process.
I wasn’t able to articulate this at the time. All I ended up saying was “I’m not sure I agree with that.” I felt so dissatisfied with my inadequate response that I wrote this article. However, I like this quote by psychotherapist Christine Hutchinson who works with women on recognising and dealing with emotional labor: "Don't put the extra burden of fixing the problem of sexism on your shoulders. It's enough to just notice it and feel what you feel about it, anger or confusion." It is not, in fact, my job to solve gender inequality. So that's a relief. Christine also says that she does a lot of work "with women on being able to build the capacity to make other people uncomfortable." And I recognise that I'm already there: I do feel confident enough to make other people uncomfortable with their gendered assumptions by openly questioning how and by whom emotional labor is performed. Conference Guy got away unscathed, but I now have the opportunity to advocate for change on a much broader platform than in that one conversation alone.
This is an invitation to all Conference Guys to think more deeply about your advocacy for greater diversity. I have no desire to punish those who are making an effort, but I do want invite you to consider new aspects of understanding how power and privilege is expressed within your teams. To that man I say, excellent that you’ve started the conversation. Now keep it going.