June 9, 2021 • Work

What Do We Owe Our Jobs?

Naomi Osaka
Photo via The New York Times

This past week, tennis star Naomi Osaka, quit the French Open rather than participate in the mandatory press conference. A columnist for an Australian newspaper called Osaka “uppity” and a “princess” and others have similarly derided her for complaining about a necessary aspect of the job.

But why should jobs cost us our mental well-being? And why, when we point out the emotional toll are women accused of complaining?

Last month, I wrote about online harassment and death threats, which have become an almost routine part of my existence as a writer and a woman online. The waves of hate ebb and flow but have remained constant in my life since 2016. In response to my story, men like Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey accused me of “whining” and playing the victim. Other commenters thought I should just “suck it up” because it was part of the job.

It is part of the job. But that’s the thing, it shouldn’t be. Osaka would rather quit playing a major tournament than put up with the endless inane rounds of questions. People would rather tell me and other women like me to suck it up, rather than examine the forces of our culture that exact an extreme emotional burden from women just for existing and being good at their jobs.

Last fall, after my face appeared in an attack ad sponsored by the local GOP, my agent, a smart woman who represents a lot of smart women, gave me this advice. “The better you are, the worse it gets,” she said. “No one likes a successful woman.”

Arlie Russell Hoschild coined the term “emotional labor” in 1983 to describe the emotional self management required for certain professions. Such as flight attendants smiling while dealing with unruly passengers. The term has been expanded since then, much to Hoschild’s dismay, but at its core, the term speaks to the way that our workplaces monitor and relegate our emotional lives. And this is especially true for women in the workforce. 

Once, at a job for a local newspaper, I was criticized by a manager for losing my temper online after another wave of online harassment washed over my timeline and leaked into my email inbox. I swore online and called someone a “dick.” When I pointed out that my male colleagues often lashed out not just at online criticism, but at readers, I was met with silence. This was the same job, where a female colleague told me that when I talked I did so too loudly and if I wanted people to like me, I should modulate my voice.

The problem was not that she was wrong, but that she felt the need to enforce those standards. I am well aware of the shifting standards. I just simply choose not to follow them. In 2007, I worked at a marketing company, where my boss saw me washing other people’s dishes in the sink. “Don’t do it,” she said. “You don’t get paid to do it. No one will like you more for doing it. And somehow, it’s always women who do this.

Although she was talking about actual labor, I think about those words a lot when it comes to the emotional labor of our jobs. Who is allowed to push back? Who is allowed to complain or say that something sucks?

It speaks to the nature of how we view work that we’d tell women to suck it up when their emotional health is at risk, rather than working to change the culture that expects so much from us in the first place.

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom talked about this in her newsletter Essaying, when she wrote about how employees are resisting returning to the office. An important point she made was that working from home takes away a lot of the emotional labor that employees, particularly Black women do on a regular basis: “A lot of Black workers report that the freedom from managing the hostility in white-dominant workplaces improves their productivity and well-being,” she writes. “Folks get tired of being the “only” or the hyper-visible or your “Black work friend.” 

The point is, work doesn’t have to suck. It doesn’t have to demand that we put our emotional and mental health at stake just to exist and achieve. But telling women to suck it up and deal with it seems easier than doing the work to change the personal, cultural, and structural biases that made this reality in the first place. The question is, who is it easier for?