When They Don’t Want You To Lead

What we turned up in our SRCCON session on managers from underrepresented communities

We found a lot of shared challenges. A lot. (Kaeti Hinck)

It’s challenging to find your feet as a leader, and even more so when you’re in an underrepresented group. For people of color, women, and others in underrepresented groups and communities, there are structural systems and power dynamics in place that make navigating the workplace—and leadership—especially precarious. During SRCCON in Portland, we gathered to talk about our experiences and ideas for how to navigate shared challenges.

As people spoke about their personal challenges and frustrations, clear themes emerged. Time and time again, the entire room would nod along in agreement. Women shared stories of well-meaning colleagues telling them to smile more, to smile less, or in some cases both. Project managers and editors talked about how they were not given the runway to do their jobs because teammates undervalued “non-technical” roles. People told stories of how they had been dismissed in the workplace because they didn’t go to a big-name school or graduate from a journalism program, or because their non-traditional career path was not valued and respected. And a big one: many people felt the weight of being the “token minority” tasked with pushing for diversity and inclusivity, but not being recognized for the work.

We wanted to make space to talk about frustrations, but also solutions. Small groups spent most of the hour talking about specific tactics for how to deal with the realities of living as a minority in a majority world. Here are just a few of the ideas that emerged.

Use Humor

Be a funny person, so that people like you. Jk. (That was a joke! Get it?)

Several people in the session found this tactic to be very effective. You can couch hard-to-say things in a spoonful of sugar and soften the blow on direct and honest statements. No, we shouldn’t have to bend over backward to make our opinions more palatable, but sometimes it’s worth adjusting your delivery if it helps get things done. Even better if doing so gets you to a position where you can set the tone and change the workplace culture.

Have Scripts and Go-To Responses to Surprising Microaggressions

It’s important to recognize bad behavior, but sometimes it’s challenging to react in the moment. Instead of being surprised, having short phrases at the ready can be incredibly effective.

Examples include:

  • "Hey, that’s really not cool.”

  • Why would you say that?”

  • That is not okay here.”

  • “Do you think that’s appropriate?”

  • I’m not sure why ____ matters in this situation, but…[and then answer the question.”]

Build Relationships

After all, work is all about the people you work with. If you aren’t already holding 1:1s with your manager and with your team members, these regular check-ins create a safe space for people to talk. Sit downs and closed door conversations become less reactive and are a consistent space to think about big-picture goals, give kudos, and address any “red flag” moments before they happen.

Seek out allies in your workplace. Find people who you trust and tell them about the challenges you’re facing so that emotional labor does not fall squarely on your shoulders. You can ask these people to help amplify your message in meetings if you find you’re being ignored or interrupted. They can also speak up when others get credit for your ideas.

It also helps to build up a support system outside of work. Community outside of work can come in many forms (Slack groups, brunch, happy hours, SRCCON conversations, etc.), and your community can be a safe space as you prepare for negotiations, interviews, and salary conversations. These external support groups are especially helpful if you feel isolated in your work environment.

This session revealed just how many shared challenges we’re facing. The more we find ways to carry that community support into our day-to-day lives, the more the weight of isolation lifts.

Formalize and Document

Building administrative duties into your processes can work in your favor: trade off who takes notes in a meeting, orders lunch, or wrangles a baby shower. Be explicit about documenting the expectations for these nebulous tasks that can too often fall to underrepresented folks.

In addition to documenting department or company-wide processes, document your work. Keep track of your wins and contributions (you can’t assume anyone else will). Keeping daily logs and a fastidious paper trail is helpful when it comes time for your annual review and salary negotiations. And it serves as evidence if you face overt discrimination.

If it feels like important conversations are happening off the books, or you’re not sure how to respond in the moment, send an email after a meeting, conversation, or performance review. “Thanks for the conversation earlier. Here’s what I took away…Am I missing anything?”


Unfortunately, you may hit a point with a company where things are really not working out. You’ve asked for more mentorship, sought out leadership training, and tried to negotiate professional development opportunities, but it’s just not happening. No workplace is perfect, but you deserve to work in an environment where you feel safe and heard. The emotional erosion of a hostile workplace is mentally and spiritually exhausting, and it’s important to take care of yourself.

Getting Beyond Tactics

Even more important than specific tactics, the biggest takeaway from this session is that you are not alone. If you’re in an underrepresented group and facing a challenge in the workplace, there are others who have been where you are.

First, check out the Etherpad for all the notes from the session. We hope you find something that you can take back to your respective workplaces, as an ally and a leader. Also on the Etherpad, you’ll find a list of people who can potentially help with your specific challenges. In an effort to keep this conversation going, we asked people to share what they could help with or whether they needed help with anything, from resume reviews to negotiation pep talks.

Poynter and ONA have also begun to offer more leadership training and support for women. Slack communities like Journalists of Color have created safer spaces for people of color to get support. At the end of the day, look out for one another. We hope the people who attended this SRCCON session (and the OpenNews community in general) can continue to be a resource for each other.


  • Emily Chow

    Design editor at the Washington Post, and @PostGraphics emeritus. She lives for the conversations and collaborations that push the boundaries of visual storytelling.

  • Kaeti Hinck

    Kaeti Hinck is an editor at The Washington Post, where she leads an award-winning visual journalism team and explores the intersection of technology, design, and narrative. Before joining the Post in 2016, she worked as design director of the Institute of Nonprofit News. At INN, she helped design and build open source products to support independent publishers. For more than a decade she has been exploring the power of visual communication and technology in newsrooms. Outside of work, you’ll likely find her reading under a blanket, searching for the perfect breakfast sandwich, and spending as much time in the woods as possible.


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