Emotional labour: Valuing skills in service sector employment

in Long Read , Tagged analysis, Emotional labour, Service economy, Hochschild, Pay equity.
  • annejunor

    Anne Junor

    Associate Professor; Deputy Director, Industrial Relations Research Centre, UNSW Business School (UNSW Sydney); School of Business, UNSW Canberra


Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

Long Read:

Emotional labour, it has been argued, is "fast becoming mainstream feminism's new favourite term". But do we actually know what it's about? Does it refer to the unpaid domestic labor done mostly by women, or something different altogether? And what does it have to do with pay equity?

Here, Associate Professor Anne Junor unpacks the complex topic, and argues that the concept of emotional labour represents a major advance in identifying gendered service skills.

This post is part of the 'Gendered innovation in the social sciences' project at the Australian National University.  

The issue: The quest for gender pay equity

In the twenty-first century every OECD country continues to have a gender pay gap, despite decades of commitment to ‘equal pay’.

The 1951 ILO Equal Remuneration Convention 100 was ratified in Anglophone countries other than the USA between 1971 and 1983. In Australia, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission ruled in 1969 that there should be equal pay for equal work and in 1972 extended the principle to equal pay for work of equal value. In 1974, in another historic wage case, the Commission extended the minimum wage to women. Nevertheless, in 1978, Mary Gaudron, the first female Justice of the High Court of Australia commented: ‘We got equal pay once, and then we got it again, and then we got it again, and now we still don’t have it’. Her wry comment is still true another 20 years on.

A major reason for ongoing pay inequity is the unresolved issue of defining and valuing the new types of skills required in the service economy

A major reason for ongoing pay inequity is the unresolved issue of defining and valuing the new types of skills required in the service economy. This is the sector where, since the early 1980s, most job growth has occurred and where women’s employment is concentrated.

In Australia, as elsewhere, approaches to pay-setting, whether based on work value cases or job evaluation practices, have continued to focus primarily on measuring and valuing the technical, physical labour skills of workers and the mental labour skills attributed mainly to managers. Taken for granted and overlooked have been the less visible and less tangible skills used particularly by women in rapidly-changing technology-based clerical work, in social, community and care work, and in interactive frontline retail and hospitality jobs.

The skills involved in these service jobs have been cast as ‘natural’ feminine attributes, or as ‘everyday accomplishments’, acquired through living in the family and the community as a woman

The skills involved in these service jobs have been cast as ‘natural’ feminine attributes, or as ‘everyday accomplishments’, acquired through living in the family and the community as a woman. Yet from the late 1970s, there has been a growing awareness that the rise of the service economy has meant an increased requirement for skills of communication, coordinating, problem-solving, judgment, contextual understanding and complex multi-tasking. Since the 1980s, there has been a growing recognition that service jobs can no longer be defined by task lists: instead, they are ‘sets of relations organised into social roles’.

Approaches to recognising the skills of service work are still under debate. Feminists have argued that without recognition of the extent, intensity and/or criticality of the skill demands of a job, fair and accurate valuation is not possible. Yet recognition can be impeded by the invisibility of service skills. This invisibility has a range of causes. In some service jobs, it may be necessary to hide skilful interventions behind a veil of diplomacy, for example in managing a difficult boss or client, or in fostering a learner’s or care recipient’s sense of independence: the more visible some aspects of a job, the less expertly they are being performed.

Alternatively, there may be no terminology to capture and define fleeting and nuanced interactions and subtle behaviours that workers themselves have internalised as ‘second nature’. Or the skills may have been under-defined and under-codified, wrongly essentialised as ‘natural’ attributes like ‘sparkling personality’, or crammed into a portmanteau term that needs to be unpacked: even the term ‘emotional labour’ may fall into the portmanteau term category. Nevertheless, while it needs unpacking, the concept of emotional labour represents a major advance in identifying gendered service skills. This advance, its contested nature, and approaches to building on it, are outlined below.

shutterstock 677971795

Approaches to pay-setting have continued to focus primarily on measuring and valuing the technical, physical labour skills of workers and the mental labour skills attributed mainly to managers

Feminist interventions

In the 1980s, feminists began arguing that skill is socially constructed and indeed ‘man made’. In Australia, Clare Burton drew attention to the higher value placed on financial responsibility compared with responsibility for life and death; on managing and controlling people compared with caring for them; and on working with machines compared with working with people.

In a detailed case study of how a particular job evaluation exercise delivered gender-differentiated pay structures, these authors showed how the language of job descriptions can make women and their skills disappear. They cited examples such as the use of vague and passive terms for women’s jobs: ‘the incumbent’; ‘displays tact’; ‘works largely unsupervised’; ‘supports’. They compared these terms with parallel terms used in describing men’s jobs, such as ‘the technician’; ‘promotes a good image’; ‘has a good deal of freedom to act’; ‘coordinates’. The effect, they argued, was to render invisible many of the skills in jobs held predominantly by women. The question then became how to bring such invisible skills to light.

A ground-breaking step in the identification of gendered skill occurred in 1983, when American sociologist Arlie Hochschild published The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. This study introduced the concept of emotional labour. In fact, Hochschild’s main purpose was not to identify or celebrate under-recognised, feminised skills: this application of her work came later. Rather, in the context of the rise of neoliberalism and its attendant culture of enterprise and customer sovereignty, Hochschild’s purpose was to document the alienation experienced by flight attendants and debt collectors. Such workers were required to display constant and heightened levels of pleasantness or unpleasantness in order to influence customers’ feelings and behaviour.

Hochschild identified the alienating effect of translating the sort of skilled emotion management that might be used in interactions with family and friends, into the type of employer-managed emotional labour now required in the workplace. She emphasised the cost to workers’ sense of self and mental well-being entailed in constantly working to produce an emotional state in others, in order to create a profitable product. She argued that service workers may be obliged to undertake ‘deep acting’, working on themselves in order to internalise the feelings they must display to and elicit in customers.

In the United Kingdom, Hochschild’s analysis was taken up by labour process theorists, who seized on the alienation and control elements of her analysis, in order to characterise the new types of work that were emerging from the 1990s onwards in frontline service jobs. These theorists welded the concept of emotional labour to Braverman’s deskilling thesis, in order to argue that managerial control had become increasingly invasive, as evidenced for example in the scripting and surveillance of some call centre work. This line of analysis tended to link the concept of ‘deskilled’ (managerially controlled) work processes with the concept of ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skilled’ workers. It argued that highly controlled, repetitive jobs should not be romanticised by claiming that they involve skills, and that the concept of skill should be reserved for technical proficiency and not diluted by applying it to ‘mundane accomplishments’. Otherwise, they warned, the concept of skill loses its meaning: ‘we are all skilled now’.

Bolton voiced concern that to deny the skills of emotion work is to mis-characterise these skills as personality or character traits, with the risk that they are seem as ‘natural’ qualities suitable for ‘women’s work’

In a critique of this line of argument, Sharon Bolton (2005) proposed a more nuanced understanding of various types of ‘skilled emotion management’ in the service sector. She argued that Hochschild’s concept of emotional labour overstates the extent to which organisations can control their employees’ subjectivity. Employees retain control over the extent to which they embrace their role: they can shift among various identities and create spaces for genuine interaction. Bolton voiced concern that to deny the skills of emotion work is to mis-characterise these skills as personality or character traits, with the risk that they are seem as ‘natural’ qualities suitable for ‘women’s work’. She argued that even if skills were originally learned in the household or community, there is a qualitative difference in their utilisation when applied in workplace settings.

Hampson and Junor (2010) agreed that emotion work should not be discounted as low-skilled, but argued that Bolton’s typology of skilled emotion management is still too narrow. It risks reducing all service work to the management of emotions, and needs to be supplemented, they argued, by a typology of other types of skilful interactions in service sector workplaces. Following Anselm Strauss, they used the term ‘articulation work’ to describe skills such as attentiveness to contexts and consequences, and capacity for negotiating and coordinating work processes. Like Bolton, however, they acknowledged Hochschild’s important contribution in bringing the study of workplace emotion management into the realm of skill analysis and gender pay equity.

Meanwhile, a separate avenue of response to Hochschild’s concept of emotional labour emerged in the United States and Canada. By the late 1980s, Ronnie Steinberg and co-researchers were making innovative, rigorous use of the concept of emotional labour in order to itemise gendered skills in successful comparable worth/equal pay claims. In 1990, Steinberg wrote an influential article on the ‘social construction of skill’, pointing to the gender bias that had led, for example, to work with budgets being valued more highly than work with welfare clients. She identifying instances from the (now-superseded) United States Dictionary of Occupational Titles, whereby dog pound and parking lot attendants were classified as being more skilled than nursery school teachers and childcare workers. Invoking Hochschild, she argued that, while the emotional labour skills of clerical workers might be visible albeit poorly compensated, the technical skills deployed in working with new information technology were also being under-recognised.



shutterstock 111443765

In the second half of the 1980s, Steinberg had been amongst the North American pay equity practitioners who specifically argued that emotional labour was invisible and not treated as valued in wage and salary determination. Like Canadian and New Zealand practitioners and Clare Burton in Australia, Steinberg argued that proprietary off-the-shelf job evaluation systems, developed before the emergence of the service sector, were gender-biased, and that only cosmetic changes had been made to them in response to pay equity initiatives, with the result that client-oriented service work remained under-valued.

In 1987, the Ontario Government enacted an Equal Pay Act that specifically required gender neutrality in job evaluation systems. In 1990, the Ontario Nurses’ Association took a claim to the Pay Equity Tribunal on behalf of registered nurses, arguing there was gender bias in the job evaluation system a particular municipality was seeking to implement. Steinberg and co-researchers were retained and the case was won, resulting in a brief to design a Gender Neutral Job Evaluation System – one that ensured that the standard factors of skill, effort, responsibility and conditions of work were all measured in a gender-neutral way. The resulting system was designed in such a way that: aspects of emotional labour were included in the human relations and communications skill factors; emotional effort was included in the effort factors; and the responsibility factor captured responsibility for the well-being of those whose emotions and actions are being managed. Thus in all, the new Gender Neutral Job Evaluation System included four factors that were wholly or partly dedicated to capturing the detailed content of emotional labour.


Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart has had over 20,000 Google Scholar citations.The concept of emotional labour has gained a paramount place in academic and popular discourse as a way of describing jobs in fields as diverse as social work, education, health, frontline customer service work, media and sex work.

There was a limited range of skill requirements in male-dominated jobs with which to compare the intensive demand for emotional labour skills in female-dominated service jobs

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian pay equity practitioners and activists worked with their United States colleagues inside and outside government and judicial systems to develop approaches to pay equity. In Australia the next moves forward came at the subnational level of the federal system. In 1996–98, a NSW Pay Equity Inquiry focused on the problematic nature of an existing requirement within the industrial relations system: in order to establish that women were paid unequally in a gender-segregated labour market, it was necessary to compare the rates afforded to very different types of jobs, requiring different types of skill. There was a limited range of skill requirements in male-dominated jobs with which to compare the intensive demand for emotional labour skills in female-dominated service jobs.

Yet, as the earlier rejection of a nurses’ comparable worth claim had shown, the Australian industrial relations system was not particularly open to arguments using points assigned to abstract factors, along the lines of job evaluation practice. The NSW Pay Equity Inquiry was based on analysis of substantial evidence gathered through site visits. It resulted in a new Equal Remuneration Principle, that established the sufficiency of demonstrating that the skill and other demands of predominantly female jobs had historically been under-valued, without the need to prove discrimination or find a male comparator. This Principle was subsequently further developed in a Queensland state case and flowed on to other state jurisdictions.

In a new Australian development in 2009, all industrial relations matters relating to corporations were shifted to the federal jurisdiction. It was necessary to test whether it could still be established, under the new federal act, the Fair Work Act 2009, that the gendered skills used in emotional labour had been historically undervalued. The 2010–2012 Australian Social and Community Services Equal Remuneration Case tested the historical undervaluation approach, and resulted in the phasing-in of pay increases of up to 45 per cent. Among the wealth of evidence tendered, was a systematic analysis of the gendered skills of care work, using a taxonomy building on and extending the concept of emotional labour. This taxonomy was originally developed in New Zealand and is discussed below.

shutterstock 201033443

A subsequent and uncompleted claim on behalf of early childhood workers was less successful. An interim tribunal ruling stated that theFair Work Act 2009 requires demonstration of more than a history of undervaluation in predominantly female jobs: it is also necessary to provide evidence that a comparable group of male workers is being paid more. Such a group of workers may not exist, because of in a sex segregated labour market it is hard to find predominantly male jobs heavily reliant on skills such as those required in performing emotional labour. Steinberg and subsequent equitable job evaluation practitioners had solved the value problem by abstracting from concrete behaviours using an agreed system of factors and points, but the 1986 federal Nurses Case had ruled against heavy reliance on this approach. There is thus unfinished business: the options are canvassed in a study whose authors include Meg Smith, a veteran of the NSW Pay Equity Inquiry. Meanwhile, in 2012 a Standards Australia working party led by Philippa Hall and including members of several job evaluation firms produced an Australian Standard for Gender-Inclusive Job Evaluation and Grading.

A key focus of the New Zealand approach was capacity-building: ‘making pay equity ordinary’ by taking it out of the realm of esoteric expertise and placing pay equity tools in the hands of people in workplaces

Progress was also being made across the Tasman. Following the 1999 election of Helen Clark as New Zealand Prime Minister, a Taskforce on Pay and Employment Equity was established. In response to its report and recommendations the New Zealand Department of Labour established a Pay and Employment Equity Unitand appointed Philippa Hall, one of the architects of the NSW Equal Remuneration Principle, to lead it. A key focus of the New Zealand approach was capacity-building: ‘making pay equity ordinary’ by taking it out of the realm of esoteric expertise and placing pay equity tools in the hands of people in workplaces, initially in the public sector and then to be rolled out to the community and private sectors. Janice Burns, who had worked since the 1990s with her North American counterparts on gender-neutral job evaluation, led the development of an Equitable Job Evaluation system, accompanied by accessible how-to guides. A Gender-Inclusive Job Evaluation Standard was developed, against which the gender-inclusiveness of commercial off-the-shelf job evaluation systems could be measured.

In New Zealand the issue of the invisibility of service skills was addressed by commissioning supplementary research to develop a generally-applicable taxonomy of such skills, again with tools designed for workplace use. The resulting taxonomy was based on the concept of emotional labour, broadened to include a wider taxonomy, using a theory of time-and interaction-based articulation work. Particularly since the election of the Ardern government in 2017, efforts to recognise gendered skills have resumed. Already in 2017, care workers had won a pay equity claim, followed in 2018 by education support workers.

Overall, the concept of emotional labour has provided a particularly robust foundation for the quest for gender pay equity over the 35 years that followed the release of Hochschild’s groundbreaking 1983 study. A major aspect of the original concept had been a focus on the alienation and job stress experienced by workers required to undertake intensive ‘deep’ acting in order to manage the emotions of others. In the UK, the linking of invasive emotional control was coupled in an unfortunate way with perceptions of low skill. This pessimistic view has been contested and there has been reaffirmation of the agency of workers undertaking skilled emotion management. North American and antipodean scholars and practitioners such as Steinberg were able to use the concept of emotional labour as a starting point for identifying and claiming the value of a range of under-defined, under-codified and under-recognised skills in predominantly female service work. Arguably the wide range of skills at present covered by the portmanteau term ‘emotional labour’ needs to be unpacked, so that the awareness, interactive and coordinating skills used in service work are fairly rewarded.


This article was first published in the gendered innovation series of the Gendered Excellence in the Social Sciences project at the ANU and has been reproduced here with permission. Read the original here.

Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments