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Why My Empathy Isn’t There For The Taking

I’m all for tax minimisation. But there’s a couple of taxes that I simply cannot avoid or minimise and I’m wondering if you can help me. There’s the ‘immigrant tax’ and the ‘woman tax’. Combined they create the ‘immigrant woman tax’.

Catalyst, a global not for profit that works to accelerate women into leadership roles, has conducted research in this area and went even further with their definition of ‘emotional tax’.  Catalyst defines ‘emotional tax’ as “the combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity, being on guard against experiences of bias, and experiencing the associated effects on health, wellbeing and ability to thrive at work.”

It’s well documented that women and people of colour are more heavily scrutinised in a workplace than their Caucasian or male peers. This is not a ‘now issue’; women and people of colour have been grappling with this emotional tax throughout their careers. For women of colour, the pressure to conform and remain a stereotype is even greater.

The mark of a modern leader is one who values and leads with empathy.  By practicing the art of empathetic leadership, we form deeper connections with others and strive to understand the diversity they bring to a workplace. Sadly, I’ve observed many times  how quickly empathic leadership erodes when a leader assumes someone should live up to a stereotype  because that is more comfortable for them instead of seeking to learn more about the other person.

Like resilience, we have levels of empathy, and it does not come in endless supply.  When we experience life events, empathy levels wax and wane.  With our work being such a significant part of our life, how you are treated at your workplace is a big factor in determining how you choose to turn up as an employee.

Corporate Australia speaks about diversity and empathy, but in my experience most Australian workplaces do not create spaces for transformational change that enables true empathetic discussions.  There are countless examples where I’ve been expected to slow down and explain myself, or alter my behaviour so that others don’t feel threatened.  When that happens, the guards and armour are drawn.  When a person is on guard for almost 8 hours a day, their empathy slowly rusts away like salt water to steel.

When you expect women of colour to conform and live up to stereotypes, you stifle creative thinking and fail to build workplaces that foster equitable practices.  In the absence of equitable practices, we lose the art of empathetic leadership.

When I look at my own career, I’ve always turned up to work being no-one but myself.  I’ve made my career plans plain and simple with most of my managers.  I’ve turned up to meetings and voiced my opinions as a professional. But many times, that opinion has been met with mixed reactions.

When you see a person, especially a woman, of colour speaking out, what’s your first reaction?  Here are some comments I’ve received in the workplace:

“You’re too confident”
“You’re too ambitious”
“You’re too direct”
“You’re too bold”

You can imagine, as someone who is simply being herself, it’s infuriating to receive comments like these for choosing to be ambitious and unashamedly advancing my career. To then see male peers rewarded for exhibiting the same behaviours is, quite frankly, degrading.   I have now made a commitment to myself that I will not slow down or maintain a pace in my career so that others can remain comfortable.

When women like me are met with these sorts of comments, it’s difficult to exercise empathy as an employee.  In these moments, what you don’t see is the series of decisions I’ve had to make in the micro-seconds prior to speaking out:

“If I speak out, will my career be affected?”
“If I speak out, will I be sidelined for future opportunities?”
“If I speak out, how will people react?”
“Should I be speaking out?”

When women and people of colour speak out and voice an opinion, you might remember that we are acting courageously in that moment.  Our desire to be ambitious and prosperous does not take anything away from you.  I, like my peers, want the same opportunities (with equal pay of course) to build a career in which our intelligence and confidence are rightly rewarded.  Speaking out may carry consequences and right now for some, it may not be an option.  I have chosen to speak out because my empathy levels have calluses that need attention.  As painful as it might be, they won’t go away because I choose to ignore them.

I’ve paid my share in unfair emotional taxes.  I’m speaking out because there are others still paying for that tax.  I want them to know that it’s time to stop giving parts of themselves away for free.  Be true to yourself and in turn, become a role model for others around you.  Should you be speaking out?  Absolutely.