Translating Emotional Labor Across Borders
An Interview with Gemma Hartley, author of “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women and the Way Forward”

by Mary Wieder Bottaro, Presidente Verona PWN


Someone once told me “we don’t choose the books we read, they choose us”.

So, in an effort to make good on my New Years resolution to read more, I stumbled into a Barnes & Nobles on a cold and gray winter morning in January in New York City to see what literary destiny was to fall upon me.

“Fed Up” immediately caught my eye among the endless titles that lined the latest and bestseller section. Maybe it was the title “Fed Up” in huge, dark pink letters across the white jacket. Or, more likely, the argument of emotional labor and women grabbed by attention as my mind began to fixate on all the somewhat recent changes in my life: a promotion at work, a non-profit to manage, a baby. And despite what sounds like a list of celebratory accomplishments, I still at times felt lost and unsettled.

Gemma Hartley grabbed international attention in late 2017 with an article in Harper’s Baazar: “Women Aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up” in which she dived into the heavy toll emotional labor takes on women. What exactly is emotional labor? While we might not all be familiar with the term, we as women have certainly experienced it in one way or another: the unpaid “labor” we endure daily in maintaining households, families and simply being the emotional support society depends on to keep the motor running.

When we come home at the end of the day, do we actually feel like our work is done? Do we feel like we can crack open a beer and just ease up? Probably not. Our minds don’t shut off. We are thinking about doing the laundry, cleaning the house, taking care of the kids, scheduling appointments, finding a solution for that bad meeting at work today.

The problem lies in the fact that our societies and cultures train us from birth that we are destined for certain roles because of our gender. Emotional labor falls to women: we are the gatekeepers to an efficient machine that keeps our daily lives running. And it comes at a cost. Not only are women physically and mentally drained, as we climb the career ladder where we equally fight for equality, our struggle to be understood takes a toll on our relationships and our well-being.

Women around the world share the frustration. I had the opportunity to interview Gemma Hartley about her take on emotional labor and the impact on Italian women. As Verona Professional Women Networking strives to create an open dialogue on diversity and equality, we hope to build a network of women who can connect and communicate with each other on these issues.

Verona PWN OPEN DAY 2019 in which we gifted “Fed Up” to one lucky professional woman.

Q&A with Gemma Hartley

Your book dives into this concept of emotional labor relying on the definition coined in academic research. How do you, Gemma Hartley as professional journalist and working wife and mother, define “emotional labor” in your own words?

I define emotional labor as the unpaid, often unnoticed work that goes into keeping those around us comfortable and happy. This definition envelopes many other terms associated with this type of work: the mental load, worry work, invisible labor, as well as the emotion work described by sociologists when defining emotional labor. Many women find this concept of emotional labor to be a useful rubric for thinking about all of their undervalued emotional and mental obligations and commitments.

Do you think women actually understand what emotional labor is and the weight it carries in our lives? How do we first become self-aware?

This expanded definition of emotional labor is relatively new, so women are just starting to piece together how it is at work in their lives. When I first wrote my Harper’s Bazaar article on the subject it had a huge response precisely because we didn’t have a language to talk about this specific frustration before. Now that we have this definition of emotional labor to apply to our lives, we can start moving forward.

Your book talks a lot about how emotional labor takes its toll on the home front: taking care of families and the home. But this idea of the “traditional family” is not as common anymore, in fact recently the number of single (unmarried) women is outnumbering married women in America and in many other countries. Do you think being fed up with emotional labor factors into that?

I talk a lot about emotional labor in the “traditional” family because that is my own experience, but emotional labor affects women in so many different ways regardless of whether or not they get married and have kids. We are still expected to anticipate the needs of others and put those needs above our own, to perform emotional labor no matter what the context.

But then, how does emotional labor catch up with us in our professional lives?

Emotional labor is expected of women in the workplace, just as it is expected of us everywhere else. Women have to strike a balance between professional achievement and likeability in order to be successful, but often the emotional labor which factors into their likeability stemies their productivity and ability to achieve at the same level as their male peers.

In Italy, the national average of women in the workforce is still less than 50%. How do you think this concept of emotional labor transcends borders? And what do you say to the response, “well that’s just our culture”?

I absolutely believe that the concept of emotional labor plays into most of Western civilization, and when people say “that’s just our culture,” they are absolutely right – and that’s exactly the problem. The imbalance of emotional labor is a cultural problem that stems entirely from the socialization we receive from a very young age. In fact, it’s so ingrained in many cultures that we think women are naturally superior when it comes to emotional labor, when in fact we’ve simply been trained to take it on as our domain.

In your book you talk about dealing with emotional labor by “having the conversation”, but do you think it requires a bigger movement? Is the answer simply a cultural mind shift or is it bigger than that?For example, many European countries, including Italy, now have quotas for the percentage of women that need to be on Boards. Is that the answer? Mandatory political intervention?

My book focuses largely on shifting the cultural mindset, because I think that is the bedrock for change, but I think of FED UP as giving us first steps toward starting the conversation – not prescribing the antidote. Changing culture must also involve action, specifically political action, in order for us to achieve true equity. I think diversity quotas are a great starting point, as well as expanding parental leave policies and incentives. I think it’s important to keep in mind that there are no “quick fixes,” we have a long road ahead of us but we’re getting there step by step.

How can women support other women? Do you believe in the power of networking and mentoring?

I think there is so much power in women connecting and collaborating with one another. In fact, I think that is how we will ultimately solve the issues of inequity that we face, both in terms of emotional labor and our broader social and cultural inequalities. By putting our efforts toward shared goals and lifting one another up, we can create real and substantial change at all levels.

Among having the lowest birthrate in Europe, 2017 was also a record low for the number of births. Many women feel the need to drop out of the workforce or do part-time in order to raise kids because they feel there isn’t enough support (like most daycares only being open until 4 pm). Most have trouble then re-entering the workforce. What advice do you have for women who want to find the right balance?

The best advice I can give is to make sure you have a partner who is willing to really share the load, not just physically, but in regards to emotional labor as well. You shouldn’t have to ask for help. You should have a partner you can rely on to take equal responsibility and initiative.

This of course doesn’t solve the structural issues of childcare and support systems outside of the home, which we must continue to vote and fight for in order to create true balance that will not put undue stress on us in our families.

In Italy it is legal in a job interview to ask about marital status and family status (number of kids or plans for kids) and many women are scared to answer the question honestly as to not hurt their chances of getting the job. How would you recommend responding positively stressing the advantages of taking on emotional labor?

First of all, it grates me that this is still legal in Italy, because it is so obviously a way to discriminate against women who are keen to have children. However, women’s experience with emotional labor makes them incredibly efficient when it comes to looking at the big picture and seeing what will best benefit a given company. Women know how to get stuff done, and they usually do so with few blind spots because they are adept at emotional labor. However, work is rife with complicated power structures, and entrenched cultural ideas that are hard to shift. I don’t know that there is an ideal way to broach the topic of emotional labor in the workplace without there being potential risk and fallout. We have a long way to go still as a society, but I am hopeful as I look toward the future.

“Fed Up” by Gemma Hartley is available here on Amazon.

@Photos by Elisa Viluppi