Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox two Wednesdays each month.
Being marginalized at work takes many forms. It looks like being excluded from projects that will move your career forward, not being included in discussions in the workplace that actually impact you, or learning that no matter what you do or what skills you bring to the table, you’re always on the outside looking in.
The reasons why can vary, but it’s important to remember it’s rarely about you. Instead, it’s often your colleagues. Perhaps they have preconceived notions about people of your racial or ethnic background, or maybe it’s about class and socioeconomic status. Maybe it’s about gender or sexuality. Whatever the root cause, being marginalized means you have something extra to navigate when you go to work: In addition to your job, you have to fight back against other people’s prejudices to succeed, whether you want to or not.
When I found myself in that very situation, where regardless of my actual success I was powerless to push back against someone else’s prejudices, I turned to Ruchika Tulshyan, speaker and author of “Inclusivity on Purpose,” for ways to protect myself. And to find out how to break the cycle of marginalization — where I was assigned busywork to “prove” myself while my privileged colleagues scooped up the high-profile work that got them raises and promotions — I spoke to professor and author Joan C. Williams and writer Marina Multhaup, both of whom have studied workplace marginalization for years. Luckily for me, they confirmed my suspicions: I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t unusual, and there are ways to succeed in spite of other people’s prejudices.
From ‘Seen, Heard and Paid’
The following excerpt is from Henry’s book, which publishes June 7.
(O)ffice housework may be the things that have to get done, but that work is often in the background, away from the eyes of decision makers. And while it may keep the organization or team working smoothly toward the group’s collective goals, office housework is highly unlikely to be the kind of thing brought up at your next performance review. Nor will it earn you accolades from your colleagues (at least, not until you leave the job, and everyone says that they don’t know how they’ll get by without you).
Glamour work, on the other hand, gets you promoted and earns you fame either on your team or across the company and even potential appreciation across your whole industry as a subject-matter expert. It turns individual contributors into valued “superstar” workers with more job security than others, because managers will actively notice the superstars’ absence and will have to fill the hole they leave behind if they exit the company or are poached by a competitor.
Williams and Multhaup’s research also indicates that women and workers of color are often assigned the office housework. Unfortunately, scheduling appointments, drafting memos, and taking care of the collective needs of the team always seem to fall to the women team members, including women of color and younger women. Meanwhile, white and male coworkers are often given (or assume for themselves) the glamour work, regardless of whether their qualifications or desires are appropriate. So dissecting who gets what work, why, and how both employees and managers can assign work more fairly is essential to making sure everyone has the opportunity to bring their fullest selves to their jobs.
Tulshyan explained that there’s definitely a gender element, but there’s another racial element as well. “I have seen white women sometimes progress even when they do office housework, because they’re seen as a team player. But I can’t recall seeing a woman of color get rewarded through advancement opportunities for it,” she said. “My sense is this expectation exists because of prevailing stereotypes by race and gender for women of color to be servile, as our historical oppression has dictated us to be.
“Research shows women and people of color are more likely to be assigned these tasks and face pushback when they decline. The simple answer for why women and people of color get assigned it is … gender and racial expectations on who is expected to be helpful and as a result, less leader-like.”
(C)onsider asking to round-robin some of the housework duties, by pointing out things like “Hey, I noticed that I’m always asked to order lunch for the team meetings. I don’t mind doing that, but would it be okay if we set up a schedule so everyone has to do it once every month?” Sometimes the difference between managers who are willing to help and those who are reluctant is simply a question of their energy. Instead of bringing them a problem that they should solve, you bring it to them with potential solutions they can use right away. This approach, of course, makes their job easier overall. So suggesting that they take specific action to fix the problem can help. You may also get some traction by bringing your own glamour work ideas to them and asking for their support on your own projects. That way, you’re effectively assigning yourself glamour work, although it doesn’t remove the housework from your plate, necessarily. But that’s another conversation with your manager entirely.
Finally, you could use the housework you’ve been doing (…) to advocate for yourself in other ways, for example, at your next performance review or the next time you ask for a raise. Telling your manager that you’re the one doing the work that effectively is the glue that holds the team together is a great way to say that the team would be way worse off without you and that you’re more valuable than you’re paid to be. Once you start keeping track of the things you do, the possibilities are endless, and there’s something powerful in attending a meeting with your boss and saying, “I’m the only one on our team who knows how to do X, Y, Z, A, B, and C.” If they don’t consider those things particularly important or high-skill tasks, your boss at least has to reckon with the fact that you’re the only one doing this essential work and that you should be properly compensated for it, even if it’s not high-profile.
To be sure, hoping managers will assign work equitably isn’t a perfect solution, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the onus of fixing structural inequality in your workplace, regardless of the reason it exists, shouldn’t fall to the person being marginalized. When I sat smiling at passersby at my desk at the Times but screaming internally, wondering why I’d been left out of yet another meeting, or having to learn secondhand that someone had worked around me instead of with me, it shouldn’t have been my problem to resolve. But the unfortunate reality is that, well, the working world isn’t fair, and it probably won’t be in the near future. So we have to come up with ways to cope and survive on our own while still maintaining our own personal dignity.
“I also would like more managers to think about how to create more psychological safety on their teams,” Tulshyan said. “How often does everyone get to speak up? Are people penalized for risk-taking and sharing ideas? It all adds up. When people of color feel safe, they’re more likely to feel supported to push back even if you, as a manager, are assigning them office housework.”
Plus, if you can shift mindsets from one where you’re under the gun and facing incredible odds to one where your struggle is proof of your strength and resilience, you can—as I did—turn that simmering anger and resentment into the fuel you need to propel yourself to greater heights in your career. You will learn to never settle until you find an environment that’s right for you and you’re surrounded by people who respect and appreciate you.
Adapted from “Seen, Heard and Paid” copyright © 2022 by Alan Henry. Used by permission of Rodale Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Subscribe to The Collective for access to subscriber-only features including exclusive Q&As with industry-leading journalists of color.
The Collective is supported by the TEGNA Foundation.