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Who Cares: Emotional Labour in Academia

As I am finishing yet another application for a position with limited chances of success (I did my statistics homework), I am reminding myself again that I shouldn’t get too emotionally invested: I shouldn’t picture myself with this specific position in this particular place just yet. I should take a potential ‘No’ lightly as a sportive challenge and not see it as a fundamental rejection of my work and my value as a member of the academic community. I know all of that. But it is emotionally exhausting. It requires energy and time to deal with the anxieties and insecurities this process brings up. And, importantly, it often requires the support and care of people that are close to me.

The academic job market is just one example of how working in academia requires more than just academic merit. Conversations with friends, colleagues and students over the last years have repeatedly brought up variations of the same themes: Am I good enough? Do I fit in? Will I be able to stay? These questions come up in different ways for people in different social positions. Yet, dealing with them almost always requires a form of emotional labour. Emotional labour, a term coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild,¹ refers to the management and coordination of emotions and bodily expressions to create a specific state of feeling in another person. In academia this work takes different shapes. It includes soothing another’s worries and anxieties, building confidence and being aware of different social backgrounds and constraints. As such, it is a crucial part of the academic practice. And yet, even though most of us rely on it in some sense or other, some provide it more than others.

Studies show that women disproportionally take on emotional labour in academia, this holds in particular for women of colour: they’re the ones listening to the students’ personal struggles within academia; they’re the ones who reassure their colleagues of their academic abilities; and they’re the ones bringing up questions of diversity in department meetings and explaining why it matters. To pre-empt a ‘Not-all-men-objection’ at this point: the claim is not that white men never provide this type of labour – the emotional care of some of my male friends and colleagues has helped me through crucial stages of my PhD. But, this type of labour is not expected of them. In her wonderful analysis of misogyny, Kate Manne² argues that women’s provision of feminine-coded goods such as care, concern, compassion or moral attention is safeguarded by moral sanctions. Failure to provide these goods often means that women are called out, described as cold and arrogant and resented for it. For example, studies of teaching evaluations show (here and here) that male and female students alike penalize their female professors if they’re not nice enough, uncaring or fail to develop a personal relationship with them, while male professors are penalized instead for being boring or uncharismatic. In short: providing emotional labour is expected from women while it is supererogatory for white men.

There are in particular three reasons for why we should care about a more equal distribution in providing emotional labour. First, providing emotional labour takes time and energy. Even in situations when we’re happy to do it, even when it can be fulfilling to be able to support others, it is still work. And it is work that is not rewarded and that happens in addition to the normal tasks required of an academic. If members of some social groups are expected to provide more emotional labour in academia than others, this means they have less time working on their own projects.

Second, if we really care about diversity in academia, we better start caring about the politics of care-giving. A more equal distribution of emotional labour can disrupt stereotypes where women’s primary virtues as philosophers are taken to be their compassion, their empathy and their diligence. At the same time, it can challenge norms associated with being a ‘good’ philosopher, in particular those that assume that a good philosopher only comes in the shape of a white, able-bodied, cis male who is dispassionate, rational and detached.

Finally, challenging the gendered distribution of emotional labour and the norms associated with it, will allow us to recognise emotional labour more explicitly as work; and moreover as work which is crucial in sustaining our daily lives as academics. A different way of valuing emotional labour can, in turn, open up space for more explicit institutional support, e.g. recognising emotional labour as a required task within academia and honouring it as a skill.

In sum, let’s care. And let’s do so on a more equal basis.


¹ Hochschild, A. R. (1985). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, p.7.

² Manne, K. (2018). Down Girl. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 110.



Mirjam Mueller

Mirjam is a postdoctoral fellow at Justitia Amplificata at the Free University Berlin. Her research focuses on questions concerning the normative issues related to global relations of production, structural injustice and feminist theory.


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1 Comment

  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you for the interesting post, Mirjam. I think it’s an important and neglected issue. I was wondering if some rules could help to restore the balance by somehow “forcing” men to do their part of this labour – waiting for appropriate changes in social norms.

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