It’s not chance that makes the world a nicer place (and ensures your mother-in-law always gets a birthday card). Kim Knight considers the invisible workload that’s mostly done by women.

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Sophie, the head of marketing, was pregnant. "I'll organise the baby shower and make the cake," said no male manager, ever. Women's work is never done. It is also, frequently, never acknowledged and often performed for free. We're all familiar with the gender debate around unpaid work (if you're not, ask yourself: when did I last clean the toilet?) Recently however, a different type of toil has come to the feminist fore. Its name is Emotional Labour. Sociologists began using the phrase in the 1980s to describe the work done by the likes of flight attendants and care workers (people paid to make customers feel good, no matter how crap they are feeling themselves). But late last year, emotional labour got a reboot. According to one Guardian newspaper interview, it can now be defined as "the time and energy spent on things considered by society to have no real value, but which are in fact essential toward functional relationships and a functional society. Traditionally, a burden placed on or taken by women." If physical labour puts cider-brined pork fillet on the dinner party table, it is emotional labour that reminds you one of your guests is vegan. Money, via paid work, makes the world go round, but it is unpaid emotional labour that keeps the wheels turning smoothly (and ensures your mother-in-law gets a birthday card). Jobs that come under the category of "emotional labour" might include organising a leaving present for a colleague, or baking a cake for a baby shower. They're the tasks that are not in any official job descriptions, but they keep relationships, families and organisations functioning. And none of this would be a big deal, except, as commentators around the world have started to note, there is an overwhelming expectation the bulk of this work will be done by women. Yesterday, as I was reading an article in Pakistan Today headlined "Gender discrimination and emotional labour", my boss' cellphone beeped. She is a high-powered media executive. So is her husband. And yet, at 2.51pm on a Wednesday, it was her phone being flooded with pictures from the school picnic lost property box. If you are a working man in a heterosexual relationship living with your working partner and your child, there's a 99.9 per cent chance that when Oliver forgets to return his permission slip for the class trip to Motat, you are not the person Oliver's teacher will call. Emotional labourers remember allergies and anniversaries; they know the toothpaste is going to run out and that if you wear that great shirt today, it will not be available for the board meeting tomorrow. They remember to buy toilet paper and glitter sticks. They plan, arrange and book. They don't get paid for any of this. Andrew Olsen is the chief executive of the Travel Agents Association of New Zealand. Canvas emailed him seeking research on the gender split of people who organise travel. He wasn't aware of any such data. "But, from my point of view, and I'm happy to share it, [it's] absolutely my wife. She looks at school holidays, potential time out of school versus the education value of travel, deals, service and connectivity, inflight entertainment inclusions, location interest and, importantly, the budget." She always, he says, uses a travel agent, "for their professionalism, knowledge and unbiased options". Which begs the question: Why doesn't he just book the holiday? "She is more attuned to what we want as a family. And men struggle with multitasking." As the parody Twitter account @manwhohasitall asked recently: "Is it really possible for career men to juggle housework, half a cucumber, their career, weekend calories, a concealed face and 'me time'?" Candice Harris is an associate professor of management at the Auckland University of Technology. Her research focuses on "gendered experiences of paid and unpaid work". She says emotion work and caring labour has, historically, been the responsibility of women. "Women have become quite efficient at it, so we assume these are women's roles. Should women instead be asking 'how do we let other people in to help?' And how do women cope if someone doesn't do it their way? Maybe they don't make it easy for someone else to share these roles." Harris says in her experience, women do perform a wider range of unpaid tasks than men, and there is a "long history" of that unpaid work being undervalued. "Feminist economists have been arguing this for decades. It's time to turn it around and ask 'what are the skills and experience women are getting from doing some of this work?' In the professional environment, employers have been reticent in acknowledging all these unpaid duties and obligations. In CVs, the currency of paid work is what is highlighted and valued."

Some of this work women adore, while others begrudge it, and we just assume men don't do it at all. Some of these tasks are not rocket science, but that doesn't diminish their value. The issue should be about choice.
Candice Harris
Harris notes "the great leadership" books are more likely to draw on metaphors from business, sport, and the military than parenting. "It sounds simplistic, but in organising a family celebration or a fundraiser, women develop expertise in many areas - procurement, logistics, health and safety, food allergies, cultural practices, finance and stakeholder management. Plus you are propping up other industries by shifting money around the economy doing this kind of work." Ultimately, says Harris, it should be about personal choice. "Some of this work women adore, while others begrudge it, and we just assume men don't do it at all. Some of these tasks are not rocket science, but that doesn't diminish their value. The issue should be about choice. "Do you make holiday bookings because you are the only ones with the passwords and credit cards, or are you happy doing it?" Emotional labour is hard work, but there are pay-offs, says Nicky Shore, founder of the Off Wax & Laser and On Browhouse beauty businesses. "Giving and investing above and beyond the actual task of a job, delivers rewards for everybody," says the 40-year-old mother of two small boys. That emotional work - remembering staff birthdays, or rewarding employees with a bonus bottle of wine and a card - is very different from what she calls "logistical labour" like cooking, cleaning and shopping (her husband, who works in the business, but is based from home, does more of this logistical work). Shore says she makes a "positive choice" to invest in emotional labour. "Our business is so much more successful when we focus on the intangible things. The overriding principle is happy staff, happy clients." And at home? "The reality is the world wouldn't stop turning if I didn't do those things. But the way I would explain it, is there would be no colour for me. I would feel like I was treading water." A cautionary tale from Shore, a self-confessed Emotional Labourer: "It was the eve of my son's first birthday and I came in really late from work and discovered a whole mass of baking ingredients that our au pair had got ready to go for the morning. I instantly felt that guilt that it should have been me, his mum, making his birthday cake. I went into a manic frenzy and I headed to Countdown and it was 11 o'clock at night and I spent, like $150 on two licorice straps because I had to buy a packet of 50 just to get two. "I stayed up till 2 in the morning and I made not just a cake, but a lifelike log truck with chocolate flakes all over it and then I woke up in the morning and Martina, our beautiful au pair, just basically said she was making some cupcakes because it was her turn to do the plate for morning tea at playcentre." Shore doubts an elaborate log truck cake was high on her 1-year-old's priority list. "But for me that emotional sense of duty just took over." Women "are more wired to value this stuff. They care about it more," says Shore. Perversely: "Women's expectation of emotional labour also creates the demand for it." Yes, emotional labourers can be their own worst enemies. Consider this quote from one of the women interviewed by the Guardian: "Where do we keep the kitchen towels? He asks me time and time again. After the third or fourth time, that shit needs to be learned. It suggests to me that there is a detachment to home that I do not have the luxury of having. If I did, then our everyday life would be a nightmare." But would it really? Canvas wondered what would happen in a household where nobody did the emotional labour. One woman we spoke to wished to remain anonymous, but confirms that last school holidays her family wore the cost of booking two flights to visit Grandma, because neither she nor her husband had remembered exactly when the school holidays were and subsequently booked two separate but overlapping trips - one to the South Island and one to Melbourne. Is it your week to wash the football team uniforms? Who's going to book the electrician for the busted element on the stove? What is for dinner - and what is the best time to eat it, based on everything else happening today? The commentators call this stuff "unnoticed thoughtfulness". It's not as blatant as the expectation that only someone with two X-chromosomes can organise a leaving card, but somewhere there must be a cost to all of this. What work is the working woman not getting done when she's performing all of this emotional labour? Shore says she sometimes thinks of her brain as a computer with approximately 1000 open tabs. "I shift between strategic, logistical and emotional tasks all the time. I duck in and out, and possibly I am my own worst enemy when it comes to all this stuff. But I've seen the difference it makes at work and at home. I think women do it because we choose to. I'm a people person by nature and I value this stuff." Like @manwhohasitall asks: "Today's question: will scientists ever find out why men are naturally attracted to unpaid caring work?" For Auckland-based business coach Nicole Coyne, emotional labour is about building relationships. She says making people feel good about themselves is good for business - and both men and women should engage in it. "I don't believe it is a woman's job. It needs to be divided and every single person needs to have a level of emotional labour or emotional intelligence in their job and in their personal life. "Men are actually very capable of doing this, of tuning into it. They just have to want to do it." In the workplace, she says, "it makes you real, human and approachable. Obviously it's not all sitting around singing Kumbaya, you have to run a business as well, but there needs to be that element in a business if you want people to work there." At home: "Men assume women like to do these things, and women assume men don't want to. Maybe it's about opening up that communication. Saying, 'who wants to do this, and who doesn't?' It should be a choice."