Colorful line-art painting of two women with cropped blonde hair looking their shoulders. They both wear feather dresses.
Image credit: Yermine Richardson /

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s spring 2024 issue, “‘Stop Drowning Us, and Stop Making Us Disappear’: A Critical Report on the State of Black Woman Leadership.” 

The following has been excerpted from the author’s manuscript Your Comfort Is Killing Me: How to Fix Workplace Culture and Support the Transformative Leadership of Women of Color. The manuscript centers the experiences of women of color leaders, including the author’s firsthand experiences as a minoritized leader in the predominantly White worlds of nonprofits and philanthropy. What follows speaks to the personal and professional toll of emotional labor for women of color—particularly Black women—leaders. Names and identifying information have been changed to mitigate risk to those who share their stories here. All interviews were conducted virtually during June and July 2022; survey responses were received through an online form between January and March 2023.1

Workplace harm can result from a lack of psychological safety at work2 and includes behaviors such as discrimination,3 harassment,4 bullying,5 microaggressions,6 double standards,7 unreasonable workloads,8 and racial gaslighting.9 When such harms are layered upon the societal racism and sexism that women of color (and particularly Black women, due to deep anti-Blackness and colorism in the United States) endure, the damage caused is multilayered, intersectional, and cumulative—and it is killing us.

Women of color experience a higher degree of microaggressions, lack of support, and gaslighting in the workplace than their White peers.10 They are also paid less than their White or male peers;11 even with higher levels of education, Black, Native, and Latine women earn less than their male and White counterparts.12 And women of color are less likely to become organizational leaders than White women or men, despite having higher levels of self-reported ambition for leadership.13 Because US society is built from the blueprints of White supremacy, patriarchy, and racial capitalism, the growing demographic diversity in the United States alone is not enough to change these realities or create cultural and psychological safety in our workplaces for racialized and minoritized populations. Increasing diversity without inclusion, belonging, and safety, as I learned during my 2023 research on women of color leaders, is causing women of color actual, progressive harm.

Collective Emotional Drain

“Celebrating us publicly and annihilating us internally and privately” said Kiara, a Black philanthropic leader, describing how the workplace treats women of color.

In the interviews I conducted and the responses to my surveys, emotional labor was uniformly identified as a consequence of having to navigate the intersection of racialized and gendered workplace barriers. Emotional labor has also been a significant burden (and energy drain) in my personal work experience. As survey participants aptly noted, working within a culture that doesn’t account for or create space for one’s reality, experiences, and identity is exhausting. “Invisible when accomplishing work with excellence, visible when being gaslighted,” is how Cora, a Black nonprofit leader, described it.14 It is “having to explain my experiences and real life over and over in White spaces; feeling isolated and alone; [a] lack of mentors who share my experience,” described Maya, a multiracial nonprofit and philanthropic leader.15

The endemic nature of harmful experiences in unsupportive and toxic workplaces creates a collective emotional drain among women of color leaders in the United States. Women of color leaders are being depleted while navigating harm at the interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels, distracting and derailing energy, creativity, and attention from the intended work of creating a more just world for all. “Celebrating us publicly and annihilating us internally and privately,” said Kiara, a Black philanthropic leader, describing how the workplace treats women of color.16

Women of color shared stories about having to remain calm through repeated covert and overt insults, offensive remarks, and microaggressions. They described enduring stereotypes and racialized and gendered tropes, shared stories about White women’s weaponized tears and passive-aggressiveness, and recounted feeling both invisible and hypervisible. Many also shared stories about doing racial equity work even when it isn’t part of their job, and of the unspoken expectation that women of color also be the emotional laborers and caregivers for their organizations.

When asked about emotional drains women of color face at work, the women I surveyed recounted experiencing:

  • Lack of respect and support
  • Exclusion from opportunities
  • White coworkers being paid significantly/disproportionately more than them
  • Constant scrutiny and second-guessing
  • Being undervalued and underestimated
  • Tokenism and fetishization (“pet to threat”)17
  • Expectation to represent all women of color or one’s specific community/ies
  • Lack of understanding of intersectional identities at work
  • Pressure to be “flawless,” better than others, and to overproduce
  • Stereotyping—being told they are intimidating, scary, angry, loud, unprofessional
  • Having to constantly code-switch
  • Gaslighting
  • Lack of mentorship

Some of the ways in which these drains show up in the workplace for the women I interviewed and surveyed, follow.

Lack of mentorship

Research indicates that those who experience mentorship “perform better, advance in their careers faster, and even experience more workplace satisfaction,”18 and most of the women I interviewed and surveyed experienced a lack of mentorship opportunities as a significant workplace barrier. While a few women mentioned mentors who were White and/or male, having mentors who have faced similar challenges and barriers as women of color was identified by all interviewees as essential. As Diya, a South Asian American educational leader, described it,

The organizations where I’ve worked just didn’t know how to mentor me, and they just didn’t even try. I find it hard to hear them say that they are committed to diversity and inclusion when they aren’t willing to work with a woman of color to find a way to provide mentorship that works for [her] and addresses [her] reality. Because what they have been doing has kept the systems in place.19

Kiara shared that having a Black woman as a mentor early on in her career had given her confidence, guidance, and support in ways that resonated with her life experiences. She had access to learning and work opportunities that she wouldn’t have had without this mentor, and acknowledged that, sadly, “this is not the reality for most Black women or other women of color.”20

The women I interviewed and surveyed described supporting other women of color as critical to being a leader. Still, this commitment to solidarity with other women of color brings additional responsibility and effort that White men and women don’t face, given the availability of White leaders to serve as mentors and mentorship programs geared toward Whiteness and White leadership models. As Breanne, a Black nonprofit leader, said, “[An] added labor we carry [is] to mentor younger women of color and/or support our POC colleagues. Basically, [reaching] back down and [pulling] other women of color up.”21

Expectation to represent, or “rep sweats”

“The organizations where I’ve worked just didn’t know how to mentor me, and they just didn’t even try.” —DiyaClosely related to the responsibility to support other women of color amid a shortage of mentorship opportunities is the pressure many women of color feel to represent. One survey respondent referenced rep sweats, a term stand-up comic Jenny Yang developed to describe how people of color often feel like they have to represent their entire race/s or community/ies, and the pressure that puts on an individual.22 Women of color organizational leaders are aware that they inhabit a rarified space for Black, Indigenous, and other women of color, and carry this awareness as one more responsibility that they don’t see their White peers worrying about. They talked about the anxiety they feel about making any mistakes and about the repercussions of those mistakes for others of their perceived identity.

Exclusion from opportunities, and being undervalued and disrespected

White, patriarchal-dominant cultural frameworks are so deeply built into the bones of the practices, policies, and structures of our work institutions that there is often no place to challenge an unjust process or decision. This lack of accountability, combined with women of color’s perception that they are perpetually underestimated, disrespected, and viewed through a White leadership lens, leads to qualified women of color leaders being excluded from and denied professional opportunities. Experiences such as the following, shared by Krista, a highly educated Black woman (who was working on a doctoral degree at the time of our interview, and has decades of leadership experience in the nonprofit and grassroots sectors), were painfully common among the women I interviewed and surveyed:

I applied for this new position at the place where I’d been working and was told I didn’t have enough leadership experience for the new position. Soon after, another Black woman I knew applied for the job and was also turned down. The next thing I knew, a White woman I was supervising applied, and she got the job, even though the White woman had no supervisory experience, less work experience and education than I, and had been part of the interviewing team—part of the process that interviewed the other Black woman who applied and me! So now the entire leadership team was White women.23

Krista left the organization shortly after, realizing that there was no transparency or accountability for the all-White leadership team and their decisions.

Stereotypes, tropes, and the emotional tax that results

“To be told you’re scary, you’re intimidating, you make people feel bad by your sheer existence—what does that do to your ability to exert your power, to be a leader? It makes me question myself: Is it me? Am I this person they’re describing?” —Angela

Workplace emotional tax is defined as the adverse effects resulting from “feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity.”24 In a country with persistent, predictable, and growing racial disparities and violently enforced anti-Blackness, the burden of a workplace emotional tax is felt acutely by women of color leaders, and especially by Black women leaders. As Danielle, a Black nonprofit leader, said during our interview, when describing her internal dialogue around how she is perceived when she exercises her embodied power as a leader,

All of that is evaluated through implicit bias, through the tropes and the stereotypes of strong Black women, Black women who climbed the ladders…the angry Black woman trope….We still navigate our insecurities; we question how Black can we be in that space, right? The hair issues, the tone of our voices, and how loud we can be.25

Women of color, and Black women in particular, are most likely to experience (and anticipate) gender and racial bias at work.26 A lifetime of navigating structural barriers and threats and accruing emotional labor at work can have uniquely potent effects, including on the health and wellbeing of women of color. The compelling research on “weathering,”27 which finds that repeated exposure to racism and other adverse social conditions causes premature aging and related health risks, speaks to the profound toll interpersonal and structural racism takes on Black women and women of color at the cellular level and on populations as a whole. All interviewees mentioned the impact that workplace stress and dysfunction had on their health, with multiple instances of women leaving specific workplaces because of their harmful (physical and behavioral) health impact.

Code-switching, making ourselves smaller, and other forms of contorting our full selves

And as you’re being forced to be made small, you start internalizing that, and you forget all of the things you’ve done in the past.28

—Shanti, Asian American nonprofit leader

“What I’ve experienced is that when it’s a Black woman who’s being uncompromising, she’s being a bitch, she’s being angry, she’s not being like whatever she is supposed to be. No! We don’t have time to compromise! We’re dying.” —Krista

Code-switching, constantly translating across cultures and worldviews, and filtering ourselves for our safety and for the comfort of others is tiring; yet these are common and often necessary experiences for women of color leaders. For many women of color, the issues we work on are not just professional or abstract—they are personal and high stakes. As Krista said, “We’re close to the issues, and we’re close to the suffering; we’re close to the pain.”29 Our intimacy with the issues we work on brings a different energy to the work. Women I interviewed and surveyed reported being just as likely to be complimented for being passionate about their lived experiences as admonished for being too intense, too fierce, too confident, and intimidating.

Many of the women I interviewed and surveyed mentioned having to restrain themselves and filter what they bring to the workplace. As Angela, a Black nonprofit leader, said,

To be told you’re scary, you’re intimidating, you make people feel bad by your sheer existence—what does that do to your ability to exert your power, to be a leader? It makes me question myself: Is it me? Am I this person they’re describing? And then I do this emotional and mental exploration.30

I have been called intimidating, scary, and too confident more times than I care to recall, and just like Angela, these comments triggered self-doubt and activated a deeply conditioned aversion to being perceived as angry or aggressive—and, therefore, unprofessional.

Krista shared feeling that she is never viewed as talking, walking, or behaving in the way that workplaces consider appropriate for a leader. She explained,

Typically, our goals [as women of color] differ. How we show up is different, how we respond is different, our level of passion is different, and what’s at stake for us is different. What I’ve experienced is that when it’s a Black woman who’s being uncompromising, she’s being a bitch, she’s being angry, she’s not being like whatever she is supposed to be. No! We don’t have time to compromise! We’re dying. There’s a different level of urgency and reality [for women of color].31

Making oneself small was a common theme across all interviews. Women of color, and particularly Black women, spoke of the fear of being seen as “too much” and the risk they perceived in bringing their full selves to work. Relatedly, women shared endless experiences with tone policing, especially by White leaders and board members. All the women I interviewed spoke with a deep sense of frustration about the effort they regularly expend in making themselves palatable for White-dominant-culture workplaces. The world is on fire, yet women of color are habitually expected to comport ourselves as if we did not live in a violently unjust world.

Pressure to overproduce and overperform

But for me, raised as a Black woman, I must be twice as good and work twice as hard as everybody else.32

Danielle, Black nonprofit leader

The heavy burden of emotional labor that Black women and other women of color leaders endure in the workplace is exacerbated by the disproportionate levels of responsibility for leading equity, inclusion, and diversity efforts at work, even when it’s not part of their job. Yet even in the context of this added emotional labor, women of color find ways to adapt and intensify their resolve. In the words of Lucia, a Latine educational leader, women of color’s lived experiences navigating visible and invisible barriers equip them to “question everything—from policies to programming to structures—and keep what is useful to more than simply a minority of people with power, and move forward with what potentially could be more nurturing to everyone, including those who haven’t had leadership positions.”33 This is at the root of the transformational power of women of color’s leadership: we live what is invisible and theoretical to most organizational leaders in the United States, having had to learn to navigate multiple realities at once. This equips women of color leaders with specific skills and assets, described by Darren Isom, Cora Daniels, and Britt Savage as more community-centered motivations, the ability to work across identities and networks, and being particularly adept at change management—which involves possessing “self-awareness,” seeing the world with “double consciousness” and from the perspective of “intersectional identities,” being “comfortable [with] being uncomfortable,” having “a high degree of empathy,” “observation and active listening,” “collaborative leadership,” “asset-based approach[es],” and “radical imagination.”34

I invite all to learn from the transformational leadership of Black women and other women of color, to sit with the constructive discomfort that deep empathy can enable, and to work collectively to transform our workplace cultures.


Gaslighting at work was, sadly, a widespread experience for the women I interviewed and surveyed. Most of the women I spoke with reflected on the fact that they have experienced harm from individuals who present and perhaps even view themselves as “definitely not racist.” Threats to the comfort of the powerful can elicit abusive behavior from individuals one might never suspect of engaging in gaslighting, disinformation, or other harm. People who are used to wielding power (whether they are aware of this or not) feel entitled to comfort, to being the center of attention, to being in the presumed gaze as a desired object, and to having their perspectives and skills valued and recognized. As Laura, a Black philanthropic leader, noted,

I have been hurt and faced [substantial] racism/sexism from people who believe they are antiracist. They are so good at seeing racism when it happens at a distance (time, geography, scale), but they are resistant to seeing it close up or believing that “good” people are racist/sexist. It is like being in an abusive relationship—“antiracist,” “woke” White men and women will rave about how fabulous you are, the importance of BIPOC communities, the beauty, strength, blah blah blah (insert gushing comment about Dr. King here); they will put you up on a pedestal as a remarkable person and then pull you down hard with microaggressions, denying of isms, and blatant prejudice and discrimination.35

* * *

Emotional labor is a significant, pervasive, and complex reality shared by every woman I interviewed and surveyed, while also being a dimension of every other theme identified through the interviews and surveys I conducted. Through the stories shared with me and my own experiences, I understand the emotional toll to be the result of having to navigate intentional and unintentional harm every day in psychologically unsafe workplaces. It is important to understand that unintentional harm also creates emotional labor; many instances were shared in which people considered allies created harmful conditions. As Monica, a multiracial grassroots leader, described it,

What was so hard about it was that people who loved me and said they respected me replicated the status quo of oppression by encouraging me to conform.36

As someone with extensive public health training, I am trained to look for the roots of injury and disease and seek ways to prevent further harm—or at least mitigate harm in some way—for myself and others. I invite all to learn from the transformational leadership of Black women and other women of color, to sit with the constructive discomfort that deep empathy can enable, and to work collectively to transform our workplace cultures.

To heal from the harm, we must first be willing and able to see the harm, empathize with the pain, sit with the discomfort, and not succumb to the very American tendency to jump straight to quick-fix solutions. Because as bell hooks says, “True resistance begins with people confronting pain…and wanting to do something to change it.”37



  1. The manuscript from which this article was adapted draws on 10 interviews and over 30 surveys of women of color It foregrounds their stories to disrupt the entrenched White supremacist and patriarchal workplace structures and cultures that dominate the sector, addresses the need for constructive discomfort and systemic change, and relates stories about: power; identity; the difference between comfort and safety; the need to take up space; self-determination; fear; our relationship with uncertainty; and the necessary messiness at the heart of change. Emotional labor is among the most common threads across these stories.
  2. Amy Gallo, “What Is Psychological Safety?,” Harvard Business Review, February 15, 2023, org/2023/02/what-is-psychological-safety.
  3. Dnika Travis and Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace (New York: Catalyst, 2018).
  4. Out of the Shadows: An Analysis of Sexual Harassment Charges Filed by Working Women (Washington, DC: National Women’s Law Center, 2018).
  5. “The S. Surgeon General’s Framework for Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2022,
  6. Ella Washington, “Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions at Work,” Harvard Business Review, May 10, 2022,
  7. Scott Sleek, “Toxic workplaces leave employees sick, scared, and looking for an How to combat unhealthy conditions,” American Psychological Association, July 13, 2023,
  8. Ibid.
  9. Angelique Davis and Rose Ernst, “Racial gaslighting,” Politics, Groups, and Identities 7, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 761–74.
  10. Hanieh Khosroshahi, “The Concrete Ceiling,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, May 10, 2021,
  11. Rakesh Kochhar, “The Enduring Grip of the Gender Pay Gap,” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2023,
  12. American Association of University Women, The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap: 2020 Update (Washington, DC: AAUW, 2020),
  13. Kim Elsesser, “Women Are More Ambitious Now Than Before The Pandemic, New Survey Says,” Forbes, October 5, 2023,
  14. Online survey respondent, January to March 2023.
  15. Online survey respondent, January to March 2023.
  16. Virtual interview, July 22, 2022.
  17. Kecia Thomas et al., “Women of Color at Midcareer: Going from Pet to Threat,” in Psychological Health of Women of Color: Intersections, Challenges, and Opportunities, ed. Lillian Comas-Díaz and Beverly Green (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013), 275–86.
  18. Mark Horoszowski, “How to Build a Great Relationship with a Mentor,” Harvard Business Review, January 21, 2020,
  19. Virtual interview, July 22, 2022.
  20. Virtual interview, July 22, 2022.
  21. Online survey respondent, January to March 2023.
  22. Jean Chen Ho, “Bling Empire and the Energizing Potential of Asian-American Mediocrity,” Bazaar, February 17, 2021,
  23. Virtual interview, June 17, 2022.
  24. Travis and Thorpe-Moscon, Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace, 18.
  25. Virtual interview, June 17, 2022.
  26. Travis and Thorpe-Moscon, Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace.
  27. Sarah Forrester et , “Racial differences in weathering and its associations with psychosocial stress: The CARDIA study,” SSM—Population Health 7 (April 2019).
  28. Virtual interview, June 17, 2022.
  29. Virtual interview, June 17, 2022.
  30. Virtual interview, July 22, 2022.
  31. Virtual interview, June 17, 2022.
  32. Virtual interview, June 17, 2022.
  33. Virtual interview, July 3, 2022.
  34. Darren Isom, Cora Daniels, and Britt Savage, “What Everyone Can Learn From Leaders of Color,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, June 28, 2022,
  35. Online survey respondent, January to March 2023.
  36. Online survey respondent, January to March 2023.
  37. bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1999).