Allyson Zimmermann is EMEA executive director at Catalyst, where she works with leading global organisations, developing and supporting Catalyst members in advancing their diversity and inclusion initiatives to make positive change for women in the workplace. As a citizen of the US and Switzerland, she currently resides in Zurich, previously having lived and worked in four other countries. Outside of her role at Catalyst, Allyson is a professional coach.
“The weight experienced by women of colour when they feel constantly ‘on guard’ is a traumatic and, unfortunately, everyday state of emotional tax.”
Progress for women is progress for everyone
I’m executive director EMEA at Catalyst, a global non-profit working with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Our research and solutions accelerate and advance women into leadership – because progress for women is progress for everyone.
The weight of constantly being ‘on guard’
Try to imagine being constantly ‘on guard’, alert for potential acts of racial bias maybe at the shops or the doctor’s as well as at work. These potential verbal or nonverbal slights are constant and can affect a person’s self-respect and value, putting enormous mental strains on an individual and affecting their overall well-being. It can lead to them feeling anxious, burned out and not being able to sleep properly.
In the workplace, this feeling of being ‘on guard’ can affect a woman of colour’s ability to fully contribute and thrive. The weight experienced by women of colour when they feel constantly ‘on guard’ is a traumatic and, unfortunately, everyday state of emotional tax.
The ‘emotional tax’
We define ‘emotional tax’ in our research report as the combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity; being ‘on guard’ to protect against bias or unfair treatment; and the effect this has on an individual’s health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work.
As mentioned, an important aspect of ‘emotional tax’ is when women of colour feel that they must be ‘on guard’ to protect against racial and gender bias. Nearly 60% of the women and men of colour surveyed said they felt this.
Employees who feel ‘on guard’ are more likely to want to leave their jobs as well as facing challenges to their well-being. We found that the majority of those who are ‘on guard’ have a strong drive to contribute and succeed in their work, therefore the potential loss of this committed talent could be very detrimental to an organisation.
Catalyst’s research series on ‘emotional tax’ started in 2016 with our first report, which looked at the experiences of Black men and women in the workplace in the US. We have since expanded the series to also look at Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, and multiracial employees.
‘Emotional tax’ can be harmful and therefore should be prevented
‘Emotional tax’ can harm businesses by preventing employees from being able to thrive at work. When individuals feel included, they are more likely to be innovative and team-orientated and are less likely to leave their organisation.
To retain these valuable employees and address potential reasons for being ‘on guard’, leaders and colleagues alike must cultivate inclusive workplaces and reduce the emotional tax felt by women of colour.
Listening to people of colour when they speak about the issues they face is key, as is taking measures to learn and fix the issues within a business or workplace. Speaking up against exclusionary behaviour is a good start, but employers need to act on these behaviours and make sure people are held accountable to ensure they stop.
What you can do for Black History Month
Black History Month in the UK is an opportunity to honour the many achievements and contributions of Black people from throughout history to the present. Black History Month is also about education and is an opportunity for people to learn more about the impact of systemic racism and how they can become better allies.
We have compiled a list of resources to help people drive change within their workplaces, including creating equity in the hiring process, how to be a true ally (not a performative one) and learning about how ‘emotional tax’ impacts Black people.
When Black women were asked where they were most likely to experience racism, it was the workplace that come out top. Employers cannot ignore discrimination in the workplace and need to do more to accelerate gender and racial equity.
The power of empathy
We have just released a new report about empathy and why it is so essential as a business skill for leaders. Empathy is the skill of connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions—and demonstrating that understanding with intention, care, and concern.
The report, entitled The Power of Empathy in Times of Crisis and Beyond, shows that employees with highly empathic managers and leaders are more creative and engaged at work than employees with less empathic leaders. For women of colour, highly empathic senior leaders also correlated to lower levels of burnout and intent to leave.