There is no question that navigating the world as a woman of color is a unique experience. The combination of sexism and racism we face as we move through our individual lives, including in the workplace, can also result in us being wary and on edge in a way that impacts our health and even our ability to succeed.
“Emotional tax” is what a new study from researchers at Catalyst—a nonprofit organization that seeks to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion—calls this phenomenon, this psychological burden placed on women of color because of microaggressions and other exclusionary behavior.
“Of course .... we understand that individuals in their own right can experience stress, navigate work by challenges, have difficult relationships to navigate at work at times,” Dnika Travis, vice president of research at Catalyst and one of the authors of the study, told The Root. “The emotional tax piece specifically ... is really that undue burden levied on many women and men of color as a result of unfair treatment.”
The report, titled “Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace,” found that as a result of, or in anticipation of, this unfair treatment, professionals of color report high instances of being “on guard” to protect themselves against racial and gender bias.
Of the 1,569 professionals surveyed for the study, researchers found that across the board, more than half of all women of any given background reported being highly on guard. Black women led the group, with 58 percent saying that they felt on guard throughout their professional lives, followed by 56 percent of Latinas, 52 percent of multiracial women and 51 percent of Asian women.
“Women of color continue to deal with some of the workplace’s most entrenched hurdles, such as pay inequities and near invisibility in top leadership roles, as well as daunting roadblocks that stifle the meaningful dialogue that would help make real progress,” Travis said in a press statement. “Over time, these daily battles take a heavy toll on women of color, creating a damaging link between their health and the workplace. And because of consequences associated with emotional tax, companies must begin to take intentional action to avoid possible harm to their businesses and employees’ health and well-being.”
But women are not the only ones who pay this emotional tax. Men of color, especially blacks and Latinos (64 percent and 60 percent, respectively), most frequently report being on guard.
If you are a professional of color, or even if you just pay attention to the news cycle, this news or this feeling may not come as a surprise. A simple Google search will pull up countless stories of black employees being targeted, bullied or even penalized because of the way they choose to wear their hair in the workplace, for example, or the other snide comments, questions and even offensive “gifts” to which they have been made subject. The prominence of the #MeToo Movement gives insight into how women navigate the world and the workplace because of the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.
It is little wonder, then, that women and men of color often have to prepare themselves—put on a mask and perhaps even alter their appearance—in order to navigate the workspace that is informed by our culture.
“I work from home, so none of my callers can see me. Based on the sound of my voice, they assume I am a young, Caucasian female, and so they are very comfortable making very racist comments against different nationalities. I have to pretend that I am not offended, and I am encouraged by my superiors to suppress my true identity,” a contributor to the study, identified only as Tena, is quoted as saying. Tena is black and Latina.
This type of constant anxiety obviously has an impact on the well-being of the professionals involved and the way they view their work. Respondents who reported higher levels of being on guard were 38 percent more likely to consider leaving their jobs and 58 percent more likely to report sleep problems, which can, in turn, affect their ability to function efficiently and thrive at their job.
That, in turn, impacts the business.
“Statistics show that people are going through experiences that are hard to grapple with and disheartening and difficult for people who are living that every day. And they bring that to the workplace,” Travis told The Root. “So if we’re not facing those difficult issues and allowing opportunities for employees to connect and support each other and really make change within the organization itself ... we’re doing a disservice to companies and the potential for companies to live their mission and what their goals are for achieving results for the business.”
But at the end of the day, men and women of color get shit done, despite it all.
The study shows that professionals of color who experience emotional tax are still reporting high aspirations to succeed and thrive, not only professionally but also personally and in their communities. Almost 90 percent of these professionals reported that realizing goals such as being influential leaders, obtaining financial stability and being altruistic were very or somewhat important to them. In the same vein, about 81 percent of respondents who reported higher levels of being on guard also reported more creativity at work.
“It might be precisely because women and men of color are so driven to succeed and contribute that they experience emotional consequences when they are stymied. Any company that doesn’t fully leverage this ambition is vulnerable to a talent drain,” the study notes.
Indeed if you have employees who are willing and determined to work and succeed, why wouldn’t you want them to be at their best? Why wouldn’t you want to give them all the tools they needed to succeed?
But something that seems so common sense, especially in 2018, is often not that simple at all.
So what’s the solution?
What it has always been: inclusion; actually listening to people of color when they speak about the issues they face—no matter how seemingly subtle; actively involving people of color to show that their contributions are valued; taking measures to learn and fix the issues within a workplace; and making sure that everyone, from leadership to staff, is held accountable for inclusive leadership behaviors.
“To be able to really hold a spotlight on the value of inclusion is a huge takeaway, and that means that everyone has a responsibility in being leaders within their organization to ensure that an inclusive environment is what we’re collectively trying to achieve,” Travis said. “The findings around inclusion and the role of ensuring that people feel valued for their unique contribution, they’re not having to hide or cover in the workplace and have that sense of belonging, and the importance that that plays in terms of mitigating emotional tax, is really critical.”