By Rafia Zakaria
17 February 2016
SEVERAL times a day, in almost all Pakistan’s larger cities, planes fill up with passengers, doors close and the flight is ready to take off. Flight attendants, many of them women, begin their circuit up and down the aisle, serving drinks or snacks to the passengers, ensuring that they are comfortable.
As in most other parts of the world, the job of the flight attendant is one usually occupied by women, and there is a reason for that: the experience (at least theoretically and possibly not at all on some Pakistani airlines) is that the flight attendant is there to take care of you on your journey. In this sense, her job is not simply physical but also emotional. Most jobs that hire women, from teaching to nursing, tend to possess this particular component.
The problems it produced were recently pointed out by author Adia Wingfield in an article entitled How ‘Service with a Smile’ Takes a Toll on Working Women. While dealing mostly with Western contexts, Wingfield pointed out that the emotional expectation of how women must conduct themselves within the context of service industry workplaces is not tabulated when considering the effort involved in doing these jobs. The concept of ‘emotional labour’, the project of making customers or passengers or students feel cared for, something that goes beyond the job as it appears, is not usually considered at all when pay scales for this sort of work are considered.
The thorniness of the issue is further revealed when one considers the fact that men doing the same jobs are not held to the same standards of expressing care or emotional connection. A male secretary in this sense is not expected to manage the personal aspects of his boss’s life, ensure not simply that the administrative tasks that are part of his job are done, but that the boss feels like things are taken care of.
The kicker for women lies in the fact that these expectations do not cease when they start making inroads into male-dominated professions. A female boss is again expected and evaluated by her staff not simply on the way she manages and executes but also based on whether and how much caring she expresses for her employees.
Female bosses who fail to do so are routinely judged harshly by male and female employees, labelled harsh, abrasive and patently unlikeable. Male bosses, of course, face no such burden of establishing likeability, of tempering the fact of their authority with apologetic niceties that say to everyone: ‘I am so sorry for being your boss and a female; let me go out of my way to prove that I am caring and nice.’
Detachment, then, is something unavailable to women. If not fitting into these general scenarios, others amass in which women in the workplace must function as confidantes, agony aunts, and emotional anchors for a wide variety of people within the professional environment. Their refusal to fit into these roles, the ones that most societies are insistent on saddling them with, has the consequence of making them even less welcome in the workplace.
To make it even more of a loser’s game, these tasks of emotional management (and the fact that they routinely bleed into texts and phone calls and other infringements on personal time beyond the workplace) are to be handed out for free.
Never recognising that emotional labour is labour, and that women are required to do it, works well for men. What cannot be described must not exist, even if it is a real and often weighty task for those undertaking it.
Women must care, and care for free, and it’s not simply the workplace that makes such demands. Whether or not women work outside the home, they are also supposed to manage and attend to the emotional needs of everyone at home.
The unmarried son who returns home from work can shut himself up in his room and chill; the daughter or daughter-in-law has accrued no such licence. There are people to be interacted with, niceties to be exchanged, a plethora of emotional complexities navigated.
More often than not, the relationships that are managed are not their own, providing any real support or enrichment to the women themselves, but rather the accrued demands of others.
To neglect them is to say that the working world has claimed the essential feminine tenderness that is required to be loved at home; that the demand of this intimate realm are now judged as secondary by the cold and careerist woman who does not make herself available to attend to the emotional needs of others.
The emotional landscape of a society is crucial to its wellbeing. As women enter workplaces, the extra responsibilities and expectations placed on them need to be considered seriously.
The terms of an equitable workplace cannot simply be tabulated based on standards and markers based on the old male model. There is unfairness in these extra intangible expectations, whose reality is felt by all women, but never discussed or attended to.
Similarly, the burdens of maintaining emotional harmony within the private sphere also requires a consideration of the labour and effort that goes into fulfilling expectations of time and caring that are the burden of women and rarely, if ever, of men.
Women, it seems, are easily and unthinkingly being saddled with providing the emotional lubrication for a changing society, where they must do it all, but conveniently be paid or lauded for only half. Gender equality requires not simply women being treated fairly in the workplace, but men taking responsibility for their equivalent shares of emotional work, all the management of tempers and feelings and frustrations that they conveniently expect women to do.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.