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Dear Fifi: My male co-workers treat me like their mammy

Dear Fifi is DailyEdge.ie’s advice columnist, serving searing home truths and tepid attempts at wisdom on a weekly basis.


Petition to space out the Bank Holidays a bit more, eh? Seems like now this one has been and gone, we’ve ages to wait for another one. 

Tell me anything, ask me whatever you like and confess your darkest secrets. Either that, or just see what I think about your latest sticky situation. GET AT ME.


I am female and work in an all-male office. The men I work closely with invite each other to socialise frequently and don’t include me. There’s younger guys in the office who are friendlier and would occasionally include me. It feels really shitty as my close colleagues rely on me as a shoulder to cry on and for favours. Almost everyone has a partner and all of the partners seem to like me when I’ve met them at work functions. I’ve started doing less favours and listening to their troubles less and they’ve definitely noticed! I feel very petty but I don’t know what to do. Help a sister out please Fifi!

A lot of women reading this, I would guess, will identify with the situation you’re in. Perhaps not to such an extreme, but many women know the discomfort of being put in the role of mammy in the office or college, or taking on more than their fair share at home with a partner. And let’s face it: it’s a damn uncomfortable thing to talk about.

In the late 70s, a sociologist called Arlie Hochschild first wrote about what she termed “emotional labour”. In a nutshell, it refers to the management of feeling and expectations placed on us. It’s a phenomenon all genders experience depending on their circumstances, of course, but there’s a school of thought that many women in society tend to take on an unfair burden of it.

(An aside: here’s a thought-provoking Guardian article and an entertaining comic on the subject if you’d like some further reading. Disclaimer: if you find the concept of women undertaking more emotional labour in society to be something that induces a desire to send me long emails, please redirect these feelings to your journal. Also, try talking to other women once in a while.)

Of course, it’s not always up to women to remember a colleague’s birthdays and get the cake, nor the school tour permission slips and the washing powder, but it frequently is. It’s an unfortunate consequence of the society we live in, where women are socialised from an early age to be “nice” and therefore wind up more often than not being more predisposed to acts of consideration and roles of service or care-giving. (Again, if you feel rage rising at this and vehemently disagree, please shout into the void because we probably won’t agree.)

But back to you, letter-writer. You are undeniably in the unfortunate situation of taking on more emotional labour in the office – exerting the effort of being a shoulder to cry on, but left feeling unappreciated and therefore shitty about it.

You’re all adults in the workplace. Removing your emotional labour suddenly as an act of passive-aggressive retaliation, while perhaps temporarily satisfying and understandable, won’t make you feel any better in the long run and it won’t get you included in the work drinks. The only thing that will work here is a frank, honest conversation – not necessarily a serious one, but one where you say what you mean and what you want and reset the goal posts.

“Did my invite get lost in the post?” is a perfectly acceptable thing to say cheerily as they file out to the pub without you. Alternatively, organise your own social events and ask them along. You may have been excluded for so long at this point that these guys have forgotten you were never asked in the first place.

Reframe the situation and carry on with that as the new normal. They may be making the assumption you’re not interested. Let them know you are, and take it from there. They’re not going to read your mind or guess at what’s changed unless you fill them in, however delicately.

As for being a shoulder to cry on? If this is something that makes you feel shitty, then reduce it – you’re not duty-bound to endure things you dislike at work that  fall outside of your contract’s job description. However, if these men treat you as an equal and value your help and advice, and you consider them friends, then by all means continue. Favours aren’t an unfair balance of emotional labour in and of themselves – how exhausted and shit you feel at the end of the work day after being leaned on is. Assess this and act accordingly.

Good luck, gal.


Want to talk?

Confess a story, ask for help or just shout into the void for a bit and see if that helps. All welcome. Anonymity totally guaranteed always. 

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