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Lately I’ve been writing The Listening Series, a set of posts about whether people listen (and how you can tell), why we get frustrated when others don’t listen to us, and how to develop advanced listening skills that accelerate our careers and increase our impact.

I stand by what I said in that series. I think people of all demographics would do well to introspect about their listening skills. I ended that series with a caveat, though:

I’ll be frank here. I’m a woman. My job is engineer. And yet, in the workplace, I have had bosses attempt to put me in charge of:

  • planning team outings and team morale activities
  • remembering birthdays and buying birthday cards for the team
  • changing the abrupt, culturally incompetent wording in their company missives to more inclusive wording
  • providing them therapy in 1-on-1s theoretically supposed to be about my career

There is a systemic pattern, in tech and elsewhere, of placing the burden of emotional labor squarely on the shoulders of women (and more generally, tilting it heavily toward folks from underrepresented groups).

The last thing I want is for somebody to send this post, or any post from the listening series, to someone from a less privileged group as instruction on how to better serve the emotional needs of others.

Are you familiar with this pattern? Unless you’re new around here, chances are you’ve heard of this. It’s a frustrating and insidious pattern that makes all of us worse at our jobs because:

  • People in marginalized groups can’t focus on their jobs when they’re doing all this extra emotional labor
  • People in privileged groups limit their abilities to learn from others and have impactful careers because they can’t form genuine, safe connections

Why don’t people speak up when we ask them to do emotional labor?

Because it can feel like dereliction of duty to shirk tasks that colleagues expect from us. And practically, protesting things that our colleagues or bosses ask us to do could end up putting us out of a job. It makes sense to acquiesce to workplace expectations. The workplace expectation of emotional labor ends up being unequally levied, but it’s still a workplace expectation. By asking members of marginalized groups to call out this expectation, we still make them do extra work either way:

  1. Don’t call it out, and be expected to do the emotional labor
  2. Call it out, which is work by itself, and potentially risk angering a boss or colleague in a career-jeopardizing way

birds fight

So how do we change the pattern of emotional labor expectations?

Ah! We can do many things: lots of them structural, and we’ve talked about some of those before.

In this series, we’ll discuss what we can do on an individual level. We’ll focus on boundaries: where they are, how to respect them, and how to protect yours, if you need to. I don’t speak for everyone’s experience in this series: I will instead focus on sharing some patterns I have noticed and some practices that have worked for me.

The next post in the series will jump into the first technique: assisted processing.

So until it comes out, here’s my challenge to you:

Can you think of a time when someone unintentionally made you feel uncomfortable at work? What do you wish you had been able to say to that person at the time? Did you ever say anything to that person? What could that person have done to make amends? How could they change their behavior in the future to make sure the same thing didn’t happen again?

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The listening series (wild guess here)

On becoming a presence in the software community (a little less tactical, but a similar idea)

Adding members to your software team (since the topic of teamwork seems useful to you)


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