Imagine waking up every day knowing that when you leave your home, you’ll likely be greeted with a multitude of insults because of your skin color, nationality, religious affiliation, or other defining characteristics. Bracing for the day, you wait for the first volley, the first subtle jab. Maybe it’s a cab driver who passes you by but picks up the person 20 feet from you. Maybe it’s a store employee who chooses to follow you around the grocery store. Or maybe it’s the “joke” you overhear deriding your religion, culture, or physical appearance. This is the reality for many women of color. Many who walk around each day living at the intersection of racism, sexism, religious discrimination, xenophobia, and other forms of bias—both inside and outside of work.
While a single slight might not seem like a big deal, these daily microaggressions add up, slowing chipping away at women of color’s dignity and reinforcing the feeling that they’re not valued. In our new report, Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace, we discovered that there’s a cost to these daily insults. The cumulative effect puts women and men of color in a constant state of being “on guard,” imposing an “Emotional Tax” that affects their health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work. Individuals who feel on guard report more sleep problems and are more likely to quit.
Consider the following story from an Asian woman Catalyst surveyed for our report. “Once, I was given a writing assignment about defensive driving techniques. Although I like the subject, I felt very on guard when it was read aloud to me, as well as everyone else, in our meeting. I braced myself for the inevitable ‘Asian/woman driver’ jokes. When they did come, I coped with it by smiling and shrugging it off so as not to cause tension.” —Ying,* Asian, female, age 27
We should be concerned about the Emotional Tax placed unfairly upon people of color not only out of basic human decency, but also for very practical reasons. The job market is tightening. Skilled workers are in high demand, which means the power is shifting toward the employee. Workers have more freedom to choose where they want to work and the luxury of leaving environments they find unwelcoming. This potential talent drain poses a huge problem for companies.
Here’s another excerpt from our report that exemplifies this phenomenon:
“I face stigma and bias every day at work because I am African American and transgender. I have been at work events where a co-worker mocked [a celebrity] because of her transition (brave at her age), not yet knowing I too am transgender. Once the co-worker found out I am transgender, they never apologized for the remarks. I experience a lot of tribalism at work, where the Polish people socialize with the Polish people, the Asian people with the Asian people, the Italian people with the Italian people….Being the only African American, I don’t have anyone with whom I can socialize. They care nothing for the history [of] my ethnicity—only theirs….I am ostracized every day, and cannot wait to leave in a month. I found a more accepting place to work.” —Daniel,* Black, man, 31
We captured numerous stories of racism and sexism in our report, which I found disheartening. It’s a stark reminder of how far we have to go toward equality. But what I found incredibly inspiring was that despite these experiences, women and men of color continue to have an incredible drive to succeed. In our study, nearly 90% of professionals of color said they wanted to be influential leaders, have challenging and intellectually stimulating work, and stay at the same company. Women and men of color persevere in spite of the barriers in front of them.
Organizations that fail to retain this determined and talented pool of employees are missing an incredible opportunity.
I often say, “diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.” While Catalyst has touted the benefits of inclusion for some time, it’s taken awhile for the corporate world to catch on. Now, after years of questionable results from diversity programs, organizations are discovering that simply checking the diversity box isn’t enough. To reap the benefits of a diverse employee pool, you have to create an inclusive environment, one where diversity is respected, valued, and nurtured. For example, when women and men of color feel included, 81% report being highly creative, 79% are more likely to speak up and contribute, and they are generally less likely to leave their employer.
Inclusion, at its heart, is about unleashing the human spirit and all of its immense potential. Everyone stands to benefit from that.
*Quotes are from real study participants, but the names of individuals quoted have been changed to protect anonymity.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about our Emotional Tax research by joining or listening to our webinar.