Unmasking the Hidden Load Women Carry
We live in a culture that disproportionately places expectations on women, resulting in greater time constraints than male counterparts. As a result, women juggle uneven expectations and responsibilities in both personal and professional realms. Often, the additional labor expected of women manifests in invisible ways. Here are three key terms to understand when thinking about the unseen work women perform:
Invisible Labor stems from the societal belief that women are naturally inclined toward caregiving and nurturing, leading to the assumption that these efforts do not require compensation. Arlene Kaplan first wrote about this "hidden work" in 1987, and it refers to unpaid work done in our personal lives, outside of traditional jobs, that often doesn't get the recognition and respect it deserves. According to research, women who work outside the home are still expected to carry a larger share of the household's responsibilities, negatively impacting their relationship status and mental health.
Mental Load, an essential aspect of invisible labor, is the constant mental work of anticipating, organizing, and managing the family's needs, resources, and schedules. It includes keeping track of groceries, birthdays, appointments, and deadlines and planning and coordinating schedules, vacations, and social events. All of this requires significant mental effort. Additionally, there is often the burden of having to remind and ask for help from one's partner, rather than them taking proactive initiative in sharing the planning responsibilities. Several studies have found that men often believe they contribute equally to household chores and are satisfied with the division of labor, while their female partners tend to disagree. While partners may intend to be supportive by saying, "Let me know how I can help," it places the responsibility of project management entirely on the other partner, who must constantly dedicate mental space to "keeping track of everything." Notably, research indicates that household work tends to be more evenly distributed and perceived as fair in LGBTQ+ relationships.
Emotional Labor refers to the exhaustion that comes from managing or controlling emotional expressions as part of one's job. It involves situations like maintaining a friendly demeanor when dealing with difficult clients, the work it takes to manage oneself emotionally while also emotionally supporting others, or suppressing inner emotions when faced with sexist or racist micro-aggressions from customers or colleagues.
The Impact of Invisible Labor in the Workplace
The weight of invisible labor doesn't stop when women step into the office or begin their remote work for the day. Instead, it continues to follow them into the workplace, negatively impacting their career paths and workplace equity. McKinsey & Company's 2021 Women In The Workplace report highlights the toll of invisible labor in the workplace. The report highlighted the discrepancy that 87% of companies say that it's critical for managers to support employee well-being, yet only 25% formally recognize this work in performance evaluations. Women’s communal skillsets are not ultimately valued in the promotion process.
Marianne Cooper, a senior research scholar at the VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University, studied the invisible labor women performed during the pandemic and found that it increased despite continuing to be undervalued. She makes the point that,
"...women are not rewarded for capacities and concerns deemed to be intrinsic. When a woman manager provides team members with emotional support during a time of societal crises, it can be overlooked as 'caretaking' instead of being recognized as strong crisis management".
The Connection Between Boundaries and Women's Leadership Success
Invisible labor affects women's leadership journeys, impacting their advancement and contributing to the gender pay gap. Women who dedicate time to non-promotable tasks cannot invest the same amount of time in tasks that could lead to career advancement, resulting in slower progress and limited opportunities. In addition, performing invisible labor in the workplace on top of typical responsibilities often leads to exhaustion, overwhelming stress, and, ultimately, burnout for women.
In this demanding landscape, embracing the skill of boundary-setting becomes vital for women to protect their well-being, prevent burnout, and preserve their excellence for the things that matter the most. By setting boundaries, women reclaim control over their time and energy, allowing them to prioritize their own needs and aspirations.
5 Ways To Embrace The Power of "No."
Know Your Limits: Understand your capabilities, strengths, and limitations. Identify what drains your energy and establish boundaries around those areas.
Communicate Assertively: Practice assertive communication when setting boundaries. Clearly express your needs, expectations, and limitations, ensuring that others understand and respect them.
Prioritize Self-Care: Make self-care a non-negotiable part of your routine. Prioritize activities that rejuvenate and recharge you, allowing you to show up as your best self.
Learn to Say "No" Kindly but Firmly: Practice saying "no" without guilt or apology. Remember that saying "no" to certain commitments allows you to say "yes" to what truly matters to you.
Seek Support and Accountability: Surround yourself with a supportive network of like-minded individuals who understand the importance of boundary-setting. Share experiences, seek advice, and hold each other accountable for maintaining healthy boundaries.
The power of “No” is an important act of self-care and resistance against a system that exploits women's invisible labor. By saying "no" when necessary, women can manage societal expectations and carve out spaces where their talents can shine, leading to a more sustainable and fulfilling path to success.