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Counting the cost of emotional tax

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 30 Sep 2021


Diversity and inclusion network founders Grace Gayle of ICAEW and Sharon Salmon of Network Rail share their experiences of discrimination in the workplace, and how they try to be a positive force for change

“Emotional tax is real. It is significant. It is underestimated and overlooked.” So says Grace Gayle, a Member Services Manager at ICAEW, and founder of its diversity and inclusion network, Embrace. 

In its 2018 report Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace, US-based non-profit organisation Catalyst defines emotional tax as “the combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity and the associated effects on health, wellbeing and ability to thrive at work”. 

The report says: “Imagine feeling a need to protect yourself from unfair treatment and negative attention inside and outside the workplace. You devote time and energy consciously preparing to face each day, which you know comes with the potential for large and small acts of bias, exclusion or discrimination. This requires daily, not occasional, vigilance. At work, you feel a constant need to protect against what others might say or do, whether they intend to exclude you or not. Throughout the day, you might find yourself bracing for insults, avoiding social interactions and places, or adjusting your appearance to protect against hurtful situations. Put simply, you live each day in a constant state of being ‘on guard’.”

According to the Catalyst survey, this is an experience shared by nearly 60% of people from an ethnic minority background – and that sense of being ‘on guard’ is something that resonates with Grace. “Absolutely this is something I’ve experienced as a Black woman,” she says. “You can come into a work environment and feel nervous about how people are going to perceive you. There’s an additional context that is hard to describe – though I think the Catalyst report does it brilliantly – and it’s something that people haven’t necessarily always thought about.

“When you’re that different person in the room, that’s just it: you are the different person in the room, and there is that groupthink around you. You will stand out. And I think for Black people it can be quite hard. It takes almost an armour; you sometimes feel you need weaponry to get through the day because of those negative perceptions, those negative feelings, and the disparities that occur not just at work, but in general society as well. In a work environment without doubt you can be in a situation where you feel you can’t speak up, or where someone doesn’t credit your work. It is real, and it is a significant issue.”

Holding back

When Sharon Salmon, a commercial analyst at Network Rail and chair of its Cultural Fusion network, started her career in finance, she remembers feeling that she just didn’t fit in. “As a Black woman I felt like a square peg in a round hole,” she says. “Everybody else just seemed to be the same. There didn’t seem to be a recognition that talent comes in all shapes and sizes, and I didn’t feel the opportunities were there for me. It wasn’t overt discrimination, it was very subtle – an action, a look, a word. It isn’t something you can put your finger on, it’s a combination of things. But it eats away at you, and then you hang back instead of leaning in.”

She soon felt that others around her were moving forwards, while she was stuck. “I think it was probably partly me and my own limiting beliefs stopping me, but it was a big part to do with the environment I was in,” she says. “Looking around, people didn’t really look like me, so I didn’t feel like I could aspire to be them. I didn’t have the confidence to say, ‘Right, I’ll push down those boundaries and go for it.’ It wasn’t a particularly nurturing or encouraging environment. I felt very stifled.”

While the Catalyst report focuses on the experiences of Black people in the workplace, Grace believes that emotional tax is a concept that will be familiar to many individuals and groups. “I don’t think it’s a unique feeling, having an emotional tax about how you present yourself in a work situation,” she says. “The reality is that anyone who is underrepresented will feel this way. If we were to take my colour away and consider a socio-economic aspect for example, I think that would also have an emotional tax attached to it. That sense of whether you fit in, or whether you’re supposed to be a certain way. So while personally I have had feelings of ‘Oh I’m not so sure’, I know I’m not alone in that. Although that awareness has only happened over the years – when you feel alone, you don’t know that you’re not alone.”

Sharing struggles

Tackling that sense of aloneness or isolation through shared experiences is one of the most powerful ways to reduce emotional tax, believes Sharon. For her, a turning point came when she became involved in establishing Network Rail’s diversity and inclusion network eight years ago. “I was at a point where I felt, ‘I’m not going to get any further, I’m not going to be promoted. I don’t walk the walk, I don’t fit the suit,’” she says. “I looked around and saw colleagues leaving because they got fed up waiting around for that promotion, seeing people they felt didn’t even have the skillset being promoted ahead of them. Then the staff network came in and it kind of gave me a purpose. Suddenly we had a platform and a voice to start talking about these things. It was almost like giving a big tick to say, ‘It’s OK, we can talk about the issues we’re facing. We’re not imagining it, it’s not just in our heads, it is happening.’

“It’s about building a community where you can start talking about how you feel – where you feel you’ve been held back, what those barriers were – listening to other people, and just going on that journey. When you start to hear those stories from others around you, you realise that actually, you’re not making it up. You gain confidence because you’re mixing with other people who are experiencing the same things. It gives you a place of psychological safety.”

At ICAEW, Grace founded the Embrace network in 2019. It has come into its own, she says, in the wake of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. “It’s proven quite powerful for people, especially when the George Floyd situation hit, so we’ve been involved in all sorts of things that we didn’t plan to,” she says. “It was very much a case of raising awareness of things and having events where people could come together and network, and it just became something else.”

For Sharon, too, George Floyd was a pivotal moment. “That was a really big emotional time for many of us,” she says. “There was just an outpouring of experiences of racism. Listening to it was absolutely awful. I have experienced it myself, but when I think about some of the things people shared, it was just heartbreaking to think that in 2021, these experiences are still being felt by our colleagues.”

Empowering allies

In the wake of the murder, and the Black Lives Matter movement, Sharon says she was inundated with calls and emails from White colleagues offering their support. “They were saying, ‘I want to help. What can I do?’ So we launched an allyship empowerment toolkit to help educate people about what they can do, what they can talk about, things that make people feel uncomfortable or things that people shouldn’t say. Simple things like getting someone’s name right, making that effort, can make such a difference and make people feel valued and included.”

There is now a much greater mix of people involved in the Cultural Fusion network, she says – and that diversity is key. “You can’t just have that conversation with yourself. You need to have a wider conversation with different people from different backgrounds and share those experiences. We can all be part of the solution. White people can bring their allyship, and speak up to challenge those overt and covert behaviours.”

Grace agrees that action is important, but that it doesn’t always have to be dramatic: “It can just be a question of politeness and respect, how you have conversations and how you treat each other,” she explains. “It’s as simple as giving the Black person in the room an opportunity to say something or to speak up. For me, that act of proactive allyship is a way to decrease the sense of anxiety people will have in their day-to-day lives. Let them speak up. Don’t let them be interrupted. Amplify what they have said and how they have said it to give weight to their voice.”

While there is undoubtedly a long way to go, both Grace and Sharon feel that there is a sense of momentum after the events of the past 18 months. “I do try to have some hope and positivity, otherwise you can get consumed by the negativity,” Sharon says. “And I do think change is happening. It is a different experience for the next generation. It’s important that they see positive role models, and see the opportunities that might be there for them that may not have been there for us. 

“It’s really good that we’re having these conversations,” she adds. “Being quiet doesn’t get you anywhere. You need to speak out. It’s about educating others, finding your moment to explain those differences and share those experiences. But it’s about more than just talking, too; it’s about positive action, and physically seeing the change: seeing that representation in senior management at a decision-making level. Let’s change the narrative, and let people move up.”

Find out more about Diversity and Inclusion at ICAEW, and our Diversity & Inclusion Community 

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