Women's Emotional Labor in Higher Ed and the COVID‐19 Crisis

Written by
Karen Costa

Apr 30, 2020

Apr 30, 2020 • by Karen Costa

Countless studies have found that women do more unpaid labor than men, both within the workplace and at home. Gemma Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward (2018), recently defined “emotional labor” in an interview with Forbes as “the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy. It's emotion management and life management combined.” She continued that this includes “the mental load, worry work, invisible labor as well as the emotion work described by sociologists when defining emotional labor.”

In their paper “Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly From Academically Entitled Students,” El‐Alayli, Hansen‐Brown and Ceynar found that women professors were much more likely to be called upon to support students with “special requests.” The demands of emotional labor are even more intense for women of color in academia.

As higher education navigates the COVID‐19 pandemic, I set out to discover how this crisis is impacting women working in higher education. Read on to hear from five educators on how they are navigating this current crisis.

Niya Bond, Administrator and Online Faculty

Admittedly, I'm not always the best at setting boundaries. I tend instead toward seeing just how far I can stretch my limits before I reach overload (something often only realized in hindsight). This tendency has helped prepare me for the emotional labor of suddenly doing all the things simultaneously—I'm now a stay‐at‐home parent, at the same time that I'm a full‐time remote worker, at the same time that I'm a part‐time remote worker.

I decided early on to combat the challenges of COVID‐19 through a strategy of “care‐first.” Sometimes, my care‐first strategy is self‐preserving: taking Epsom salt baths, reading fiction (even if only a page or two at a time) and snuggling my human and fur babies. Sometimes, my care‐first strategy is outward‐extending: creating daily video check‐ins for friends and family, sharing out on social media (in moderation) and strengthening my virtual teaching and learning communities through continued connection‐building. In short, I'm being personal, present and persistent with my caring‐first. This is helping me power through.

Sachet Watson, Diversity and Inclusion Specialist

If anything, the expectation of women's emotional labor has increased as we are supposed to be the emotional repositories for so many people. Now that a lot of us are working from home, or are away from our students, there is a pressure to perform as you would under normal circumstances … without regard to your own emotions. I'm personally more emotionally exhausted than if I was working normally.

I was challenged by making decisions about social distancing with my family. I could have stayed in Indianapolis with them during this time or stayed put where I live. In order to maintain healthy boundaries with my family, I chose to stay where I am. As far as self‐care, I love to take drives to clear my head, so I took a two‐hour drive, and it was great. I'm doing my best to think about ways to care for myself, because I could do better at that during this time. This is a scary time for all of us, so I have to take it one day at a time.

Xuan Wang‐Wolf, Instructional Designer and Learning Strategist

Since we are working from home now, I absolutely feel that more emotional labor is required than before. It is harder to disconnect work from family life; it's easy to feel that you have to respond to every crisis immediately, no matter the time. Even though I try to set hard boundaries, given the pressure we are all under, work can still seep through the cracks. It can be exhausting.

I am actively practicing social distancing, along with emotionally encouraging and supporting my co‐workers. As everything is moving online, I try to give myself a no‐screen break at night, so I can take a long bath or read a book, or just be with myself in a quiet space. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing.

Meryl Krieger, Instructional Designer

What's most interesting about expectations around women's emotional labor is how it's impacting my personal life. It's not just other people—it's me, and the women I know. I watch many of us doing the same things we always do in our various ways—looking out for our colleagues, reaching out to family and friends, finding ways of creating communities [and] trying to solve problems. It's blurring the lines between being a professional woman and being a human.

My work time is now embedding itself into my home life, and it's forcing me to think in new ways about how I'll make distinctions between them. I'm rediscovering the boundaries I had to set as a doctoral student when I was dissertating. I'm just grateful that I have some kind of previous experience to draw on here to help me, but I was so bad at this as a grad student that I fear for how my self‐care will deteriorate as we move further into remote working during this crisis period.

Caitlin Faas, Life Coach and Tenured Psychology Professor

Since the COVID‐19 crisis, I've seen a lot of my clients setting too high of expectations for themselves: “I should be able to keep my feelings together for my students. I should remain calm for my family. I should be able to manage my emotions during this time because I'm an adult.”

But all of those “should statements” just make it worse. We find ourselves feeling numb. And adding a shame blanket on top of all the other emotions that are already coming up: “Don't act too excited during this time because then you're not validating other people's feelings. Don't enjoy anything during this time because people are suffering.”

Approaching this challenge is all about paying attention to the feelings we do have: “Oh, I'm feeling scared. Oh, here's me feeling anxious.” I'm not going to numb out with food to make it go away. I'm not going to drink it away. And I'm especially not going to overwork, so I can escape those feelings. I'm going to allow myself to feel them. Five minutes at a time.

Readers, what have you noticed about your own emotional labor during the COVID‐19 pandemic? How are you setting healthy boundaries at home and in the workplace? What can we learn from this challenge that we can carry forward with us into the future, to create a more equitable and supportive higher education for all?