The Burnout is Real—But This is Nothing New for Women of Color

The last year and a half has brought additional layers of microaggressions, bias and expected labor to the work and lives of women of color—but these patterns aren’t new and the effects of these experiences are cumulative.

Women at work are nearly twice as likely as men to experience microaggressions, and Black women are the most likely to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and be asked to prove their competence. (Tatyana Kanzaveli / Flickr)

Throughout COVID-19, women leaders have disproportionately stepped up to do more than is formally expected. In particular, the workload for women of color has increased—all while organizations and companies continue to issue anti-racist statements and organize committees to examine their inequities.

It’s no wonder women of color are feeling burned out. 

This isn’t new. The potential for burnout, the result of increasingly unmanageable workloads, unclear boundaries, repeated microaggressions and invisible, unrewarded emotional, physical and intellectual labor, has been present at every step of the way for a long time.

Race matters and so does gender. We need to look at our identities intersectionally when examining the multitudes of experiences of women of color. 

For example, the bias young Black girls face in school is directly tied to race and gender biases. As they get older, the prevalence of microaggressions, sexism, racism and indifference many women of color confront as they prepare to join the professional ranks, reminds us of the varied negative impacts of bias, discrimination and even good intentions on women—even before beginning their chosen profession.

In the workplace, Black women are two and a half times more likely than white women to have a coworker express surprise about their language skills or other abilities—not to mention the number of times names are misspelled, mispronounced or even intentionally changed by coworkers for coworkers’ own comfort. More generally, for every 100 entry-level men being promoted to manager, only 68 Latina women and 58 Black women are promoted to the same position. For Latina women, the pay is on average less than what white, Asian, Black and Indigenous women earn. 


Black women are two and a half times more likely than white women to have a coworker express surprise about their language skills or other abilities.


This past year and a half of homeschooling, caretaking and working from home reminds us of the exacerbated exhaustion experienced by many who bear the brunt of the motherhood penalty. The U.S. continues to rank last in the world for paid time off for new mothers, even as it expects mothers to perform much of the necessary work in society. This expectation extends well beyond the time when they first become mothers. Along with working mothers, women in senior leadership positions and Black women have been the most negatively affected in their careers during COVID-19.

As an immigrant woman who spent most of her life in the U.S., I have been surrounded by those who express surprise that I speak English well, or am fluent in another language. I’ve been chastised for not keeping my husband’s name by an immigration official; had my ability to speak English questioned by a stranger who overheard me speaking Spanish to my children in public; and been assumed Mexican by more senior colleagues because I am Latinx (no, we’re not all the same!) 

My name has repeatedly been misspelled and mispronounced. Perhaps adding an audio pronunciation clip of my name could’ve helped—but that wouldn’t change the number of times it is misspelled in emails responding to notes including my name in the sender and signature line.

As a graduate student and teaching assistant years ago, I reported a student’s discomforting physical proximity to me and their unwanted comments about my “beautiful olive skin” to the professor. The professor’s nonchalant, nervous laughter followed by a quick transition to a different topic immediately let me know this was not something I should have brought up to him. He put the responsibility on me—a graduate student—to assuage his discomfort, rather than providing me the space to address the experience. That was in the 1990s, but stories from today do not suggest we have made enough progress on this front.

Assuaging others’ discomfort is an all too common expectation for women of color. This can contribute to burnout.

Let’s be clear: The last year and a half has brought additional layers of microaggressions, bias and expected labor to the work and lives of women of color—but these patterns aren’t new and the effects of these experiences are cumulative.


It’s time we use our knowledge of women’s experiences to proactively work against patterns of behavior that benefit from the invisible labor and silence of women of color.


If knowledge is power, the next step is to use our knowledge of women’s experiences to proactively work against patterns of behavior that benefit from the invisible labor and silence of women of color. Those of us already in positions of power, who are therefore more likely to serve as gatekeepers, can lead by recognizing and sharing knowledge about prevalent practices and the barriers these create for women of color at all stages of their lives and careers.

Moving forward, those interested in being allies need to stop expecting women of color to bear the brunt of others’ discomfort when it comes to the experiences of women of color. It is not their responsibility and the expectation they perform this additional task repeatedly throughout their lives is a microaggression that can lead to burnout.

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About

M. Cristina Alcalde is Vice President for institutional diversity and inclusion at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She provides vision and leadership for university-wide diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. She is also a full professor in the department of global and intercultural studies. She has published widely on racialization, gender and gender violence, migration and exclusion and belonging. Her most recent book is Peruvian Lives across Borders: Power, Exclusion, and Home. Her forthcoming publications include two co-edited collections, Dismantling Institutional Whiteness: Emerging Forms of Leadership in Higher Education and #MeToo and Beyond: Perspectives on a Global Movement.