We’ve been told throughout our lives that there are things that women or men are just naturally better at. Giving these restrictions an air of biological determination makes it easier for people to dismiss complaints that these expectations are limiting or unfair. But despite a long history of claiming men and women’s brains are just different, there’s not much science to back it up:
These theories may be tidy, but that doesn’t make them true. The Science article describes them as “misguided, and often justified by weak, cherrypicked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence.” Unfortunately, as long as they dovetail neatly with American culture, these ideas may remain popular with both parents and principles. As Eliot told Wired in regards to her newest study, “Sex differences in the brain are irresistible to those looking to explain stereotypic differences between men and women, [a]nd they often make a big splash. … Many people believe there is such a thing as a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain.’ But when you look beyond the popularized studies—at collections of all the data—you often find that the differences are minimal.”
The fact that these gender roles are not really backed up by science doesn’t make them any less powerful. The benevolent sexism that tells women that we are better at all that feelings stuff translates into women performing unpaid and unacknowledged emotional labor at home and in the workplace. As Rose Hackman writes at The Guardian, that can mean anything from remembering birthdays to planning meals to smiling on demand to faking orgasms. Her attempt to explain the concept with a man usually sensitive to feminist concerns shows why there’s still a disconnect even though women have been talking about this for decades:
“I don’t really get it. What is emotional labor?” one of my male friends asked me, busying around his kitchen, making us lunch as we took a break from working together out of his Manhattan home.
As I tried to break it down for my lunchtime cook, I saw his brows furrow in concentration and then slowly make way for confusion. My friend, a successful software engineer in his mid-30s who had shown himself an ally to feminist causes in many of our past conversations, clearly thought this one was a step too far.
“Why is the fact that women provide emotional support work, though? What if people actually enjoy it? What if women are just better at doing that? Why do we have to make that something negative?”
“My friend would never dare say: ‘Women are more talented cleaners.’” Photograph: Ron Chapple Stock/Alamy
His questions may have betrayed some exasperation with me. He had, in all fairness, prepared all of the meals we had shared during our New York friendship without ever complaining.
“Why do you feminists always have to make normal things into issues to be debated?” he continued.
For him, framing emotional work as anything but natural was seen as needlessly picky; it was making something big out of something that was simply best left alone.
My friend would probably never dare say: “Oh, but women are better cooks,” “Women are more talented cleaners” or “Women are better with children.” And yet, that he was suggesting that maybe some women “are just like that” – better at emotions – seemed to be the argument I was bumping into most frequently when I brought up the argument.
His response is typical. Women are built that way. Why wouldn’t we enjoy being the shoulder to cry on? Why wouldn’t we want someone recognizing our talents for supporting others, rather than writing or sports or science?
It also explains why this isn’t limited to more traditional spaces. It’s certainly something that has been an issue through social justice movements and continues in progressive activism today. Men are leading with their big ideas and can’t be bothered to make food or keep track of other people’s emotions and cater to them.
These narrow cultural definitions of what womanhood looks like are put on women from birth. These stereotypes often hold because the culture has pushed women into these roles. They hold because if women didn’t pick up this slack, these things simply wouldn’t get done because no one has ever expected men to do them.
How have you experienced the burden of emotional labor at home or at work? Have you found ways to push back against those expectations?