Opinion: Black women, unpaid labor and the risk of “quiet quitting”

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Over the last few months, “quiet quitting” has entered our collective vocabulary. It’s the phrase we use to describe when an “employee keeps their job and chooses to do only the bare minimum rather than go above and beyond.” If anyone has an argument for quiet quitting, it’s Black women.

“Bare minimum” casts a negative tone, but it really means that an employee does every part of their job description — nothing more, nothing less. They clock in, do their job and clock out, not staying beyond their scheduled work hours and not performing unpaid labor. They don’t volunteer to spearhead a special project. They don’t answer emails when they’re not working. But why is simply doing one’s job considered quitting? It’s because employers have established the expectation that employees should do more than the company or organization is paying them to do.

In other words, quiet quitting is simply employees setting boundaries on their own valuable time. With stagnant wages, companies putting profits over people’s health, inflation, and workers having to threaten a strike just to get a simple paid sick day, the “surge” in quiet quitting makes absolute sense.

Especially for women — with all of their responsibilities outside of work — it makes sense to do no more than meet the expectations of a job. Women tend to be the primary caregivers in the home, doing everything from getting children fed and ready for school to cooking, cleaning, or taking care of elderly family members. Between work and caring for others, there’s hardly time to care for oneself. This likely contributes to the burnout that Black women, who are more likely to be the main breadwinners in their families, feel.

Pay inequity for women of color is a reflection of the systemic racism rooted in the founding of the United States. Black women would have to work nearly 10 more months than our white male counterparts to make the same amount of money. Such disparities make unpaid labor an even greater financial burden for us. And many Black women have been quiet quitting since well before TikTok gave it a name. Out of necessity, we’ve had to ensure that we’re there for our loved ones and for our own mental health. Yet, it’s absolutely a risk for Black women to engage in quiet quitting.

There’s a saying among Black folks that we have to work twice as hard to get half as much. At work especially, Black women have to seem pleasant and code-switch to avoid falling into the racist perception that we’re aggressive. We have to work harder than a white coworker to be considered for a raise or promotion. We’re more likely to be punished or terminated for mistakes that, had a non-Black employee made them, might have resulted in a much milder reprimand. What’s considered quiet-quitting behavior from one employee is perceived as not fitting in with workplace culture, refusing to be a team player or being difficult when the employee is a Black woman.

As human resources executive Mercedes Swan told the Wall Street Journal recently, for people of color, quiet quitting is “going to look like we’re doing less work over time when, actually, we are just performing at a level that everyone else typically is.”

An upside of the public conversation about quiet quitting is that it’s bringing to the surface multiple workplace inequities for women, particularly women of color. Unfair pay structures are just one of the challenges women of color face. If employers want employees to go above and beyond, they need to incentivize deep engagement from their staff and compensate for additional work. They need to create a work environment where it’s safe to name the impacts of race and gender on an employee’s ability or bandwidth to engage. Employees need to have the space to acknowledge moments when care obligations are making it hard to focus at work or when the compounding effects of racism, misogyny or other forms of discrimination are weighing on workers’ minds and spirits.

A wise employer will make space and time for employees to be their whole selves so that the compartmentalization and self-protective instincts that lead to quiet quitting don’t have to happen. A wiser employer will do all of those things and pay their workers equitably. If not, quiet quitting will — and should — get loud.

Josephine Kalipeni is the executive director of Family Values @ Work in Washington, D.C., and a communications fellow at The Opportunity Agenda.

Credit: Josphine Kalipeni/thegrio

Image: Unsplash/Cut in a moment

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