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Emotional Labor and Women of Color in the Workplace: A Reality Check

This guest editorial was written by Theresa Suico (pronouns of she/her/hers). Theresa has been with the City of Portland for five years, starting her career as an intern in BTS for the Office 365 Project. She then became an Assistant Business Systems Analyst for the Bureau of Development Services. She now works for BDS as a Business Systems Analyst for the POPS Program.

Theresa is Filipino-Canadian and grew up in Micronesia, Canada, and locally, the Oregon Coast. Her diverse background and biculturalism have equipped her with the ability and knowledge to navigate the various spaces she occupies and reconcile her intersecting identities as a young woman of color working in the City of Portland.

Theresa has served on the Hapa, Asian, and Pacific Islander (HAPI) leadership committee, and is currently involved in the Filipino American City Employees (FACE) group as the leadership chair. She is also on BDS Equity Committee as well.

Theresa can be reached at or 503.823.5020. Any interactions with her will require being able to tolerate pictures of her cat, Samwise Gamgee.

By Theresa Suico

The call for organizations to focus on diversity is stronger than ever. Research shows that teams with diverse perspectives produce higher-quality work than more homogenous teams. Even more research shows that companies whose leadership contains a higher proportion of women enjoy higher financial numbers than those with a lower proportion.

All the arrows point to the notion that more diversity in an organization will reap more success. But a question that must be asked is this: What is the reality?

A study performed by Catalyst, a non-profit organization focused on creating inclusive workplaces for women, unpacks this question with a term called "emotional tax", which is defined as "the heightened experience of being different from peers at work because of your gender and/or race/ethnicity and the associated detrimental effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive at work."

Given this study on emotional tax, the question being asked must then be refined to: What is the reality for women of color, where this intersection of race and gender meet? (Note: I must preface that I recognize there are so many more intersections of race and gender other than that of a cis* woman of color’s, especially intersections experienced by those belonging to the LGBTQIA community. I am focusing on this particular intersection in this article because I identify as a cis woman of color; therefore, this is the only intersection I can speak to from personal experience.)

The implications of the "emotional tax" for women of color in the workplace are staggeringly multi-faceted and dynamic in nature, as women of color are forced to navigate the interplaying forces of race and gender in the workplace, while grappling with instances of microaggressions; being stereotyped; and being tokenized. While these challenges in and of themselves are already heavy to bear, women of color do so while being expected to maintain their current level of job performance; any plans of excelling and pursuing opportunities for advancement require even more work. I interpret this phenomenon to be something called "emotional labor".

"Emotional labor" is a term coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild to describe the hidden emotional work service industry workers are expected to perform to positively influence the experience of a customer or colleague. In other words, the service worker must constantly manage their emotions—either by suppressing them, showing them, or redefining them—to achieve the results they want and to get the job done.

While emotional labor often makes its appearance in contemporary culture as something women—and not men—are expected to do in their work and personal lives, I feel it has weightier ramifications for women of color. A common narrative I often hear, and can relate to, when other women of color share their workplace experiences, is that these challenges they face every day, mentioned above—racism, sexism, stereotypes, microaggressions, tokenism, etc.—add to their plate, to the effect that it feels like they must work two times, three times, ten times as hard as white and/or male counterparts in order to prove that they are competent, knowledgeable, and deserve a seat at the table.

I work as a Business Systems Analyst for the City of Portland. On a personal level, I find my work stimulating and rewarding. But as a young woman of color in the workplace, my job is not without obstacles.

Every day, I perform copious and continuous amounts of emotional labor. I am so accustomed to switching context and tailoring my identity and the language I use to make other people comfortable. I interact with customers and colleagues alike in a premeditated regimen of behavior, designed over the years to elicit a maximally favorable response from those I interact with. If this approach seems a tad too cautious or calculated, trust me—I really would have preferred to walk in the world differently. Whether they are customers, co-workers, or higher-rank colleagues, most interactions for me will require a high degree of internal emotional regulation. As I am constantly performing this emotional labor where everybody is a "customer", there are few people who I can be my authentic self with.

I am a young Filipino woman who was not born in the United States. I was the first one in my family to attend an American college. My mother was summa cum laude of her class in the Philippines. My family came here to carve out better lives for ourselves. I felt I needed to do well: to represent my family, make my mother proud, and adjust to this new environment.

Needless to say, I was feeling a little bit of pressure.

As a first-generation immigrant, my reality is that I am not from here. I experience subtle reminders every day that I am not from here, whether it’s the small talk I have a hard time initiating; or my complete lack of familiarity with the area; or the silent question in people’s eyes that asks, "what are you?" or "how did you get here?"

I was raised to work hard, yet stay quiet. It is a daily fight to find my own voice amongst others. I am bicultural, having grown up speaking English and having spent my teenage years in Canada. I recognize that this has granted me many advantages that others who arrived here as adults do not have. However, sometimes I feel like the two sides of my identity—the Filipino side, the values I was raised with, and the North American side, the drive to be a leader, to be bolder, to speak louder—are waging war: at the cost of being successful at work, and fitting into this white culture, should I compromise my heritage, authenticity, and identity? Sometimes it is difficult to find that balance. Sometimes, in the workplace, I doubt myself because of this.

Every day, as I collaborate, facilitate, initiate, and all other forms of -ate, I struggle to assimilate into an institution that is predominantly white and is too afraid, too uncomfortable, to talk about race and gender. By ignoring my reality, my workplace is effectively erasing my experience and silencing my voice. At the end of my day, this "hidden" labor, more often than not, manifests in a mental and physical exhaustion.

This tendency to avert the subjects of race and gender is harmful to women of color, as it threatens to blanket our unique experiences under the idea of "meritocracy", a system that serves to advance individuals purely on their ability and effort — the familiar adage of "I don’t see color or gender, I only see ability" may come into mind. This gender and color-invisible stance may have been intended to help under the guise of "equality"—a one-size-fits-all notion—but it is causing more harm than good, especially when played out at the institutional level. By giving everyone the same treatment, and ignoring the nuanced identities of its workforce, an organization is only sabotaging itself and perpetuating a system of inequity. Emotional tax is paid not just by the employees in an organization, but by the organization itself.

I know this is a lot to take in. I know it might feel uncomfortable. But there is a way this can turn around, and at the risk of sounding like a cliché, it starts with you. Be an ally. For me, an ally would be someone who does self-reflection on the way that they walk in the world and how that differs from the way that walk in the world. They would recognize that these differences may signify that they have privilege in ways that I, as a woman of color, do not. They would listen, get to know me as a person, and recognize that my identity and unique experiences influence my approach to work. They would take the steps to educate themselves without burdening me. They would lean into the discomfort they feel. They would use their privilege to stand up for me and uplift me. Eventually, for my sake, they would feel threads of the same pain that I do. And in them empathizing with and validating my reality, I would feel less of a need to perform emotional labor around them, and be my authentic self, more.

Imagine the positive changes that could ripple through a workplace if genuine allyship such as this was practiced at the organizational level—to the extent that women of color feel included, supported, and valued. Imagine the rewards an organization could reap from fostering a work culture that truly embraces diversity and the enriching perspectives that come with it. Imagine if women of color felt like they could be their authentic selves at work, unhindered by the daily task of survival. Imagine instead, if such strength and resilience were unleashed to thrive. This is the kind of organization I would want to work for, and give my all for. This would be the reality that I strive for: a reality that recognizes mine.




*cisgender/cis: term for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth. The term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life.