· 2 min read · Features

The emotional tax women of colour pay in the workplace every day

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?Women of colour faced daunting challenges in the labour market before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now these inequities are even more exposed with protests for racial justice and equality in countries across the world.

Workers most economically impacted by the pandemic are more likely, on average, to be women and people of colour. Essential workers are also more likely to be women of colour, often earning lower wages and facing health risks to themselves and their families.

As well as bearing the brunt of social inequities, women of colour are also paid less than white women in the workplace and face an additional burden of an ‘emotional tax.’

Emotional tax is the heightened experience of being on guard to protect against potential bias or unfair treatment because of your gender and race/ethnicity, and the effect this has on an individual’s health, wellbeing, and ability to thrive at work.

Consider starting your day preparing for the possibility of being undervalued, overlooked, or not heard, or excluded because of aspects of your identity – whether those experiences are at work or not. Think about being on constant guard to protect yourself from acts of bias, microaggressions, or prejudiced jokes or banter from your colleagues, supervisor, or in a team meeting.

This need for high alertness is carried over into other everyday experiences, from relaxing in the park to popping into a shop or going to the doctor’s surgery. You brace for insults, downplay aspects of your appearance, or avoid certain situations where there could be potential threats or mistreatment.

This need to be always vigilant is exhausting and emotionally draining.

Our research has found that being on guard is linked to sleep problems, which can have ramifications for health and wellbeing. An overwhelming majority of women of colour who describe themselves as constantly on guard still have a strong drive to contribute to their workplaces and broader communities.

But those who are highly on guard are also most likely to want to leave their employers, compared to those who report lower levels of being on guard. This can leave organisations haemorrhaging their committed talent.

Leaders cannot ignore this. The horrific video and injustice of George Floyd being killed by a white police officer reverberated around the globe. No element of society is free from the responsibility to identify and purge racism and racial bias.

Leaders who invite genuine and open dialogue with people of colour can have a profound impact on their experiences of inclusion. We frequently hear the phrase: “I don’t see colour – only people,” which may be well-intended but actually means people’s experiences and ethnicities are not being acknowledged or honoured. Challenging conversation need to take place in the workplace to expose racism and bias and to understand each other’s perspectives.

The dominant ethnic majority, white people, have a duty to educate themselves, to listen and ask questions and to challenge their own assumptions. It is not up to women of colour to teach this. We understand that it is uncomfortable to talk about difference, but it is essential that we confront deep-rooted issues to tackle stereotypes and exclusionary practices.

We want a workplace where differences are celebrated and honoured, not ignored. Workplaces must address the social inequities that women of colour endure and root out systemic biases holding them back.

When women of colour can bring their authentic selves to work, including their racial and ethnic identities, they will be able to thrive and globalised workplaces will benefit from their diverse viewpoints, experiences and identities.

Dr. Dnika. J. Travis is vice president of research, and Allyson Zimmerman, executive director, EMEA, at Catalyst

Further reading:

Beyond ‘race washing’ - how to make sure your business is a race ally

What employers can do for BAME employees as we head back to the office

Why the far right 'protests' this weekend were far from our finest hour

Now is the opportunity for a cultural clean slate, says former NBA star John Amaechi

Black Lives Matter: now it's time to act