Home » NEW; No Reward For Leaning in-The Workplace Toll of Emotional Labor

NEW; No Reward For Leaning in-The Workplace Toll of Emotional Labor

by Narges Mohammadi

OPINION/Women are expected to play an impossible game in workplace: show compassion and submission while being assertive and confident

When Devin McNalley, a Michigan native, landed a job in marketing at a large legacy automotive company in her 20s, she couldn’t wait to prove her worth. Her university degree in communications and a self-starter attitude that had transformed a server job into a PR one made her believe she could do good work, get noticed, and even start to meaningfully climb the corporate ladder.

The Story

Devin was entering a male-dominated industry, but she didn’t blink at it. Her mother was among the first generation of women to enter white-collar industries en masse in the second half of the 20th century. The figure of a corporate woman was normal to her, and she had good reason to believe her qualifications, combined with her natural intelligence, charm, and assertiveness, would work in her favor as she sought to get ahead.

Only a few years prior, in 2010, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s then-COO, delivered a viral Ted Talk titled Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders, followed by a 2013 bestselling book, Lean In. Her insight promised younger women like Devin the tools to do what few women of older generations had managed: climb the corporate ladder and thrive.

Sandberg called on women to act as if they belonged in positions of power and be as self-assured as the men who didn’t hesitate to center themselves and their ideas. She posited that women tended to lean out in professional settings, where they needed to lean in. Sandberg’s message was clear and empowering: with the right kind of individual attitude, personal life choices, and toning down of apologetic feminine behaviors, women could finally move forward, and up. Her ideas hit a nerve with women in America and beyond.

The cherry on the cake came when one of her male directors told her she ‘came across as really abrasive for a woman’

Devin, entering the workforce just as this worldwide cultural phenomenon was taking place, knew that if anyone was unafraid of grabbing a seat at the table, leaning in, and making their voice heard when they knew their stuff, it was her.

Soon enough, an opportunity arose.

Invited into an all-male marketing meeting on tactics for “reaching millennials”, which was then the largest young generation over 18, she remembers listening dumbfounded as the men in the room proposed a strategy focused on the use of print magazines for advertising. There was no mention of social media, let alone any inquiring as to the degree young people read physical magazines.

It was instantly clear to her that this would not work. Her insight crystallized even further when meeting attendees proposed – to widespread approval – a “sticker” idea, which would involve free stickers in these print magazines that could be peeled out and stuck on objects. The idea could not have seemed more out of touch to a member of a generation that receives most of its information online.

Devin thought this strategy would not resonate with any of her contemporaries, let alone reach them. As a member of the marketing team as well as a member of the millennial group the whole meeting was about, she believed the point was worth sharing.

She recalls enunciating, “This is a really bad idea,” before going into a clear explanation of the problems with the proposed ideas. The room froze.

This is how Devin had witnessed the men in the meeting talk to one another, regardless of status or age. She was simply interacting with them the way she had observed them interacting with each other. But for a woman, this kind of behavior carried penalties, she learned.

Her lean-in moment, alas, did not carry any rewards. Quite the contrary.

A male colleague from another team turned to her and asked whether she shouldn’t be quiet and take notes. After the meeting, well-meaning older women, who had heard of the incident, sought her out. She thought she might receive sympathy or shared shock. Instead, she received a reprimand. “They told me the only way you are going to get ahead in the corporate world is to boost the male egos around you” – a form of emotional labor, making male colleagues and superiors feel good, specifically tied to affirming their power. It rang like a metaphorical constant kissing of the ring. The cherry on the cake came when one of her male directors chimed in in an email, telling her she “came across as really abrasive for a woman”.

In particular, the use of the word “abrasive” was a trigger point for Devin. Men around her were allowed to be just as direct, if not more, but she was being penalized with an adjective that was deeply gendered: a double standard in emotion expression requirements that seemed grossly unfair. She had never witnessed a man being told off for objecting to an idea, however bluntly, let alone being told they were abrasive. And yet word got around and everyone in the company knew about her comments in the meeting and what they meant about Devin.

Devin talked to her mother, who told her to finesse her tone and learn how to adapt to some of the cultures, which felt hard to swallow. “I entered the workforce sort of naïve.  Expecting competition. I knew there was a pay inequality issue I needed to be aware of, but I didn’t expect this.”

What Happened?

It only became worse. Her female boss suggested, among other tips, that she add smileys to emails. Even digitally, she had to present as upbeat and non-threatening.

In all communications, she was expected to do the emotional labor of making sure she made people feel good, as a priority over and indeed a prerequisite to the actual requirements of her job.

Devin’s lesson was a harsh one, but growing bodies of research show that her experience was somewhat predictable. One paper from 2018 posed the question of why, despite shrinking differences in career aspirations between genders, women were still a minority in leadership positions. Zooming in on 236 engineers at a big multinational company, 23% of them women, the study surveyed engineers on their self-perceptions and also asked colleagues and superiors to assess them.

The authors found that competent engineers were perceived as equally confident and ambitious, regardless of gender. But this “confidence appearance” was linked to gender-based differences when it came to workers’ likelihood of then getting ahead.


For men, being perceived as competent and confident were the two ingredients that led them to gain influence and rise. Do well and act like you know what you are doing: a simple recipe.

But for women, these two attributes were insufficient for career advancement. If women wanted to gain influence in the same way as their male counterparts, they needed to also possess and display what is known in organizational psychology as “prosocial orientation”. Prosocial orientation consists of those communal attributes often associated with the female gender: being other-oriented, concerned, and considerate of others’ interests, as well as the company’s interests, being sweet, caring, nurturing, and expressing thoughtfulness. Performing comforting stereotypes of womanhood was found to be an additional, implicit requirement for women to achieve success.

In other words, doing their job was not enough. There was an extra layer of work required of them: they had to perform emotional labor.

Emotional Labor

For a lot of female workers, this is a catch-22. If you must be seen to be extremely considerate of other people’s needs and sensitivities to advance, it can be difficult to also present as assertive and confident.

Much as sexual harassment makes women feel a lack of power, forcing women to exhibit supportive, caring, and submissive traits acts as a way of reinforcing women’s support-act role. The same applies to men of color, particularly Black men, expected to engage in constant communication and presentation of self-policing and submissive expressions to avoid racist stereotypes and penalties.

Of course, that is part of what Sandberg understood when she told generations of female workers to lean in: to rid themselves of secondary-citizen status and behave like winners. But this cannot be done until we recognize the uneven emotional labor requirements.

Micro & Macro Injustices

These micro and macro injustices are given life through the deployment of a backlash effect, threatening individuals straying from gender norms with not just social penalties but economic penalties too. This is made possible as people across genders engage in policing of others and of themselves, conspiring – intentionally or not – to maintain rigid stereotypes. For women, expected constantly to be displaying nurturing, altruistic qualities, taking on what is called “agentic” behavior – dominant, assertive, competitive – to ascend professionally causes backlash.

To modulate the backlash, and not be seen as too hungry for power or too eager to get ahead, women have to play a game of compensation. As they assert themselves as competent and confident, they must also dole out doses of reassuring emotional labor. Because these two sets of character traits are often cast in opposition to each other – as expressions of domination and submission rather than as complementary – conveying both can feel impossible. This becomes even more of a burden for anyone who veers from traditional, heteronormative behavioral scripts, particularly for those of us whose brains process social situations differently, whether because of neurodivergence or any other unseen reason.

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