Black Women's Equal Pay Day: It's Bad Enough to Make 61 Cents on the Dollar, but What About the 'Emotional Tax'?

Sixty-one cents on the dollar. That’s what black women currently make, in comparison to their equally qualified white male counterparts (of non-Hispanic origin). Despite being the most educated demographic, black women—also 80 percent of breadwinners in black households—are no closer this Black Women’s Equal Pay Day to earning their worth; in fact, we’ve fallen even further behind.

But beyond the deficit in earnings, there’s another component impeding black women’s progress in the workplace: the “emotional tax,” the additional issues and impediments encountered at work which further undermine the progress of women of color, creating an even deeper disparity between our success and that of our white counterparts.

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Dnika J. Travis, PhD., vice president of research for Catalyst, the global nonprofit advocating for women in the workplace (and coincidentally, this writer’s first workplace), has done extensive research on the issues encountered by people of color in corporate America, including a 2018 report titled Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace. Speaking with The Glow Up for Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, Travis further discussed the impact of the emotional tax as we seek to understand the deeper issues impeding equity in the workplace.

The Glow Up: Despite the work many of us have been doing to bring increased visibility to systemic inequalities in the workplace, we’re approaching Black Women’s Pay Day two weeks later this year than last. How do you respond to that?

Dnika Travis: Unequal pay is a problem every day. And, yes, it’s disheartening that Black Women’s Pay Day is two weeks later. It is extremely disheartening, and pay inequities have a real impact on black women’s lives and the ability to advance equity and inclusion in the workplace and beyond. So, every day, we must keep talking, raising awareness, and creating solutions. Change won’t happen without daily persistence and action.

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TGU: For those who are unaware, what is the “emotional tax,” and how does it impede black women’s progress in the workplace?

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DT: Emotional tax is the experience of feeling different plus being on guard to bias because of your gender, race, and ethnicity and the effects on health and wellbeing. Catalyst has released three reports in this area. A hallmark of emotional tax is the constant state of being “on guard” by bracing for the next insult or slight, changing your appearance, or avoiding certain situations. This experience of being on guard can happen in or outside the workplace. Over time, the daily battle takes a toll. Our study found sleep is disrupted and workers consider quitting their jobs more often.

TGU: Black women in business are statistically more ambitious than almost every other demographic, yet even when they inhabit the storied “seat at the table,” they aren’t encouraged to bring their full selves, or “lean in,” so to speak. Can you elaborate on that?

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DT: In our research on emotional tax, in story after story, black women told us they feel as if they must dial back aspects of their identity to avoid being stereotyped or being viewed as “too aggressive.” Others felt pressure to change their hair or another aspect of their appearance. Together, these experiences can stifle black women’s ability to bring their full, authentic selves to work. This is not necessarily a revelation, but it is a painful everyday reality.

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Ironically, we found that despite the experience of emotional tax, women of color continue to be driven to succeed and contribute at work – persevering through the experience of feeling on guard to protect against racial discrimination and gender inequality. I love this finding, because it helps show a holistic picture of black women’s experiences at work, not just the barriers faced.

TGU: Obviously, black women aren’t the lowest paid when it comes to the pay gap, but what do you feel is unique about the obstacles black women face?

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DT: We must look at the larger, systematic issues to make progress. Black women continue to deal with some of the workplace’s most entrenched hurdles. For example, pay inequities, microaggressions, stereotypes, and roadblocks often stall hard conversations about race at work, and companies and leaders need to consider these unique experiences as part of their inclusion journey to affect positive change in their organizations.

TGU: The data is there; why do you think corporations aren’t listening?

DT: I am not fully convinced that all companies are not listening. But I’ve found that companies get stalled on how to engage in meaningful dialogue about race and other aspects of identity, bias, and pain points. Some have challenges talking about and creating strategies to address issues at the intersection of gender, race, and ethnicity, along with other aspects of identity (e.g., physical appearance, physical ability, age, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs). People can say all the wrong things, even with the best of intentions. Conversations can go in an unproductive direction quickly. We’ve all been there. So listening and learning are key skills that we need more of in our organizations. We cannot fully address systematic barriers if we don’t constantly listen, learn, and refine our approach to do better.

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TGU: When we talk about black women’s value in the workplace, obviously pay is the biggest issue, but also at issue is the experience black women are having in the workplace and the obstacles facing advancement. What would true equity in the workplace look like?

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DT: That’s a big question. True equity comes with understanding, an affirmation of experiences, listening, learning, making mistakes, and recognizing that we cannot solve all problems in one fell swoop. True equity comes when all have equal opportunities to thrive, contribute, and succeed.

I would say that Catalyst is doing the hard work—my approach has been focused on finding creative ways to listen to and share stories and lived experiences through our research. I don’t pretend that we have all the answers. We need partnerships, dialogue, and ongoing conversations to make change.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.