Emotional Labor in Academia: Accommodate If You Are Female

Emotional labor in the classroom is more pronounced for women than for men.

Posted Aug 04, 2020

In the days leading up to finals week last year, I received a pretty common request from a student. Would I be willing to allow him to take the final exam a day later because of his busy finals schedule? He had two three-hour exams scheduled for that day, he explained, both in STEM fields; this was going to be an exhausting day.

Ordinarily, my answer would have been a swift no, but this time I felt compelled to consider his request more carefully. I asked him if he had considered asking the other professor instead to let him take that exam later, but he said no; that other professor would not be able to accommodate him.

Some more probing, and I discovered his other professor was a male faculty in computer science. (Meanwhile, I was just a female faculty in the helping field of psychology). And so it fell on my shoulders to ponder, wrestle with, and ultimately grant, the student’s request. I attributed it to the emotional labor burden that invariably women wind up bearing.

It should not be particularly earth-shattering or revelatory to learn there are marked gender differences in personality traits between men and women. Women tend to be more agreeable than men (Feingold, 1994), exhibiting higher scores on compassion and politeness (Wiseberg, DeYoung, & Hirsh, 2011), while men tend to be more assertive (Wiseberg et al., 2011) and score higher on anger and hostility (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2011).

Whether these differences have emerged due to evolutionary pressures or gender role expectations, one implication is that women are inadvertently or not tasked with greater work-related emotional labor requirements.

A 2018 study found that female professors reported receiving more special favor requests from entitled students compared to male professors (El-Alayli, Hansen-Brown, & Ceynar, 2018). Consequently, they experienced greater other-directed emotional labor, i.e., efforts to manage the feelings of their students. As instinctive caregivers or perceived academic moms, it seems female faculty are the go-to option when students need help curtailing their stress levels due to academic burdens.

 Getty Images/Wavebreak Media
A professor responds to a student's question.
Source: Credit: Getty Images/Wavebreak Media

My own research on emotional labor in academia revealed an interesting interaction between tenure and gender on emotional labor, defined as efforts to display authoritative emotions such as assertiveness and firmness (Tunguz, 2016). I was curious whether being tenured would lower the emotional labor toll faculty members experience when interacting with entitled students.

Overall, I did find a main effect for tenure — once tenured, faculty reported experiencing less strain when the situation called for tough love. However, I also found that gender interacted with tenure. Whereas tenured men reported lower levels of emotional labor compared to untenured men, women faculty members continued to experience comparable levels of emotional labor even after receiving tenure.

This finding suggests that whereas tenure eases the emotional strain needed to “just say no” to an entitled student, that was mostly true for men. Women faculty members continue to struggle to be tough and lay down the law.

Consequently, I found myself unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy of my own research. After a second student asked for the same favor to take the exam a day later, I found myself relenting. The emotional labor needed to stand firm to now two students’ requests was just too much to bear. I folded like a house of cards.

Additionally, in granting their requests, I felt obliged to open up the day later option to the rest of the class as well to ensure everyone was treated fairly. I ended up proctoring the same exam across two days in a row, something I have never done in the 15 years I have been in academia.

The irony did not escape me. To save my students from academic labor and myself from emotional labor, I willingly took on greater physical labor.


El-Alayli, A, Hansen-Brown, A.A., & Ceynar, M. (2018). Dancing Backwards in High Heels: Female Professors Experience More Work Demands and Special Favor Requests, Particularly from Academically Entitled Students. Sex Roles, 79(3-4), 136-150. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0872-6

Feingold, A. (1994). Gender differences in personality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 116(3), 429–456. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.3.429

Tunguz, S. (2016) In the eye of the beholder: Emotional labor in academia varies with tenure and gender, Studies in Higher Education, 41:1, 3-20, doi: 10.1080/03075079.2014.914919

Weisberg, Y. J., Deyoung, C. G., & Hirsh, J. B. (2011). Gender Differences in Personality across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five. Frontiers in psychology, 2, 178. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00178