Reducing the “Emotional Tax” Paid by Women of Color

Women and men of color often pay an “emotional tax” at work, feeling in a constant state of being “on guard.”

Katherine Giscombe, PhD

Do you ever find yourself preparing to deal with potential bias, discrimination, or exclusion at work? What about bracing for insults or avoiding certain social interactions? Many of these instances are far too common for women of color in the workplace.

Groundbreaking research from Catalyst finds that women and men of color often pay an “emotional tax” at work, feeling in a constant state of being “on guard” against potential bias because of their gender, race, and/or ethnicity. Over time, this daily battle takes a heavy toll and can affect their health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work.

Additionally, today’s volatile social climate—along with what feels like an endless series of harrowing events in the news—can make matters worse. Over the past two years, we’ve heard about fatal shootings of people of color, harassment for not speaking English, and more. Not surprisingly, these outside events can affect people of color negatively and may exacerbate their experience of emotional tax.

The good news? Leaders and companies can take action to reduce the consequences of emotional tax. Catalyst’s research report, Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace, points to inclusion as a key solution. An inclusive work culture is one where people of color feel valued for their unique attributes while also feeling a sense of belonging. For example, when Asian, black, and Latinx employees feel included, research shows that they are more likely to be creative, take risks, and develop new approaches or processes.

Companies can also leverage communication and open dialogue to help provide safe havens for people of color. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, most Americans feel race relations are deteriorating. To address this, leaders of companies and firms are organizing town hall–style meetings on sensitive subjects, including race. These typically involve participation from both organizational leaders and employee representatives of marginalized groups. The goal is to engage in productive discussions.

However, not all companies are successful in doing so. Research suggests that many of these organizational efforts, specifically in dealing with the trauma of African American employees in reaction to external events, are not adequately resourced or executed.

A potential solution is for organizations to integrate town halls into a dynamic series of meetings. They can also approach communication around race strategically in the broader framework of a desired organizational change. As a result, the town hall meetings can be used to both address employee trauma around external events and drive larger diversity and inclusion-related initiatives and goals.

Organizations can also plan town hall meetings as a series of events with the content and structure evolving based on participants’ reactions. Each agenda and discussion can build on the results of the previous ones, as part of a strategy to clarify the measures being used.

Thus, town halls—designed in a comprehensive and dynamic way—can be instrumental forums for dealing with employee trauma evoked by external events and ultimately can help reduce the experience of emotional tax for people of color in the workplace. DW

Catalyst is a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most
powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Founded in 1962, Catalyst drives change with pioneering research, practical tools, and proven solutions to accelerate and advance women into leadership—because progress for women is progress for everyone.


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