Invisible Labor

by Miriam Cherry, Marion Crain, and Winifred Poster, editors of Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

What were some of the greatest challenges that you faced while assembling this work, and in choosing pieces that would be in conversation with each other?

Choosing what to include in “invisible labor” was one of the most difficult parts of the book! The subject of invisible labor is potentially vast. We knew that we wanted to write about how technology was erasing workers, as many online platforms make users or customers believe that they are interacting with a computer rather than a person. We also knew that in some instances work was being hidden from the workers themselves, such as the effort and time required to look and act a certain way to assist a company’s branding strategy. At other times, the work was invisible to the law, as is the case when disabled workers have been stuck in dead-end low-paying “sheltered workshops” for the disabled. We hope that these materials spark a conversation about what invisible labor means and what kinds of work are being overlooked.

Were you able to uncover new insights or discussions between your own specialties and areas of study you may have been less knowledgeable about?

Definitely. The collection is truly a collection of sociological and legal approaches to questions of invisible labor, which reflect the editors’ own training. We also had a favorable cross-pollination with media studies, economics, and gender/ethnic studies. We constantly learned from our authors. Initially you might not think that orange juice commercials are part of an invisible labor problem, but under the lens of visual sociology, the ads were systemically erasing the migrant workers who were actually harvesting the fruit.

In what ways does Invisible Labor emphasize new approaches and perspectives on the role of invisible, under-protected workers around the world today?

A recent Washington Post article reported on a recent study finding that women who expend more resources on personal grooming earn twenty-percent more at work than women who do not. Controlling for innate attractiveness and other potential charm factors, researchers Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner from the University of Chicago and the University of California at Irvine analyzed data from a long-running national study of 14,000 individuals and found a direct correlation between grooming practices and increased income in women.

The study findings indicate that women may feel the pressure or obligation to engage in hours of grooming and hairstyling to “look professional” even before they show up to their jobs. While attractive men make more money, on average, than less-attractive men, interestingly, the same “grooming pay” disparity does not exist between men. The time women spend to “look right” is typically uncompensated time and not even understood as “work,” yet for many it is an unspoken yet important assumption. According to a 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, women in the United States earn only 82.5 percent of the salaries of their male colleagues. Hidden aesthetic labor could be contributing to this gender-based wage gap.

We discuss the impact of such hidden aesthetic work in Invisible Labor. A number of our authors explore the ways that work is hidden even from workers themselves. This includes the effort and time required to look and act a certain way that is used to further a company’s branding strategy. Often these strategies are gender specific and focused on selecting a certain “type” or “kind” of worker.

We wanted to use this book to expand the field, which in the past had focused mostly on volunteerism and housework. While those are important issues, we wanted to add technology and a more global perspective. With the rise of “big data” and people analytics, work is becoming increasingly more quantified. But some of the items that we discuss in the book as invisible labor – emotional labor, conforming behavior to the “ideal worker,” erasing one’s ethnicity, race, or gender – would not count in the quantified workplace where output is key.  We wanted to make neglected forms of work more visible to managers, consumers, shareholders, academics, policymakers, and workers themselves.


Marion G. Crain is Vice Provost, Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law, and Director for the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work and Social Capital at Washington University.

Miriam A. Cherry is Professor of Law at Saint Louis University.

Winifred R. Poster is a Stanford-trained sociologist affiliated with Washington University.