This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here to join the community.
Earlier in my career, I thought that people got brain worms when they became managers. The radical ideas they’d espoused suddenly became “unrealistic,” and they used more and more corporate phrases like “picking your battles” and “strategic communication.” They all sounded like excuses to me, and when they came from BIPOC leaders, especially women, I felt flat-out betrayed.
It turns out that many WOC leaders feel similarly, even when the phrases are coming out of their own mouths. Now that they’re finally in leadership positions though, they’re feeling the squeeze between what they’d dreamed of doing and what they can actually do.
“Once we’d got to this point, we were supposed to be able to do everything that we wanted,” said P. Kim Bui, senior director of product and audience innovation at The Arizona Republic. “We were supposed to get paid. We were supposed to be able to get other people paid. We were supposed to be able to disrupt. Like that was what was promised to us. And then you get there and you’re like, ‘Oh, you can’t actually upend the apple cart because you have to make money.’”
Bui is part of a generation of women who built their careers imagining new futures for journalism. They were often the first digital people in their newsrooms tasked with evangelizing the internet and building bridges between the new and the old. They were also often the people advocating for more diversity and inclusion, not just in their coverage, but within the newsrooms themselves.
Now many of them are in major leadership positions and they’re finding that the changes they hoped to make aren’t as accessible as they’d hoped.
Bui said that as the sole woman of color at the director level in her newsroom, she feels immense pressure coming from both above and below: from above, the pressure to perform perfectly, and from below, the pressure to advocate for the people of color she manages.
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“I put on myself that I am the quiet fighter for people of color and women,” Bui said. “I consider that part of my job. And in promising that, I think we overpromise.”
Some things, she said, like significant pay raises, are impossible for her to deliver, even if she acknowledges that they are fair requests from employees.
“I feel like that’s one of the more impossible parts of my job. Like I’m trying to explain to somebody who I consider a friend, and who I do want to get to in a lot more, that what they’re asking for is like, just impossible right now,” she said. “And then to do that while telling them, ‘I understand that this is what you’re asking for is a fair thing, but we can’t do it’ without sounding like a white man apologist.”
One leader at a national news organization who asked to remain anonymous so she could speak freely about her role agreed. “This sucks for women of color because all of a sudden you’re the Man and you’re like a big betrayer and that’s the last reason why I wanted to get into management.”
It’s a frustrating bind that many women of color haven’t felt prepared to face when they reach leadership levels. The few who did feel prepared attribute it to an array of leadership training they’ve participated in.
By the time Priska Neely started her job as managing editor at the Gulf States Newsroom, she had completed several leadership programs. They grew her confidence in walking into a fledgling newsroom with a mission to build it out. But she relocated to a new city during the pandemic, and shortly after she started her job, her manager left. Suddenly the support system she expected to have as she took on this new challenge was gone, and she had to figure out new ways to build it for herself.
“I’ve had to ask for help,” Neely said. “There were a couple of meetings when we had hit big milestones in the collaboration and there was just radio silence from the executive team, and that was disappointing to me. And I’m like, ‘Hey, as a reminder, I moved across the country during a pandemic. I’m working out of my apartment alone. If you all are thinking thoughts, I need you to tell me, I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t get any feedback.’”
Neely encourages reporters in her newsroom to model that same kind of feedback for each other. She’s building the support that she needs into the culture she has control over.
“I wasn’t given the tools (to succeed) but I sought them out so that I could succeed and I’m doing my best to use the power and influence I’m earning to create new systems and expectations,” she said.
And as time has gone on — and as she’s leaned on friends, mentors and coaches — the job has gotten a bit easier. “I usually say that my evolution went from thinking that this job is really hard and therefore I’m bad at it. And then it took me like four months or so to be like, ‘Oh, this job is just really hard.’ And then after, maybe six or seven months, I was like, ‘Hmm. This job is hard, but I think I’m kind of good at it.’ Now, I’m like, ‘I literally have no idea how this would have happened without me.’”
A lack of structure, oversight and support isn’t exclusive to women of color in leadership positions. But when they take on the additional labor expected of them to transform their workplaces’ cultures, it can lead to significant burnout that causes them to opt out of climbing the ladder in search of different models of leadership.
In 2015, when Nuria Net was managing editor at Fusion, a colleague told her she cared too much about her work. “I was so offended. But looking back, I’m like, yeah, I did care too much.” Net was in the first cohort of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media. After her time in the program, she said she started to r-evaluate what she had defined as a “successful” career.
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“Around that time, my husband got a job offer in Spain. So I was like, ‘F*** it. Let’s go,’” she said. “Even though it was really scary for me, because I could have continued that path and become an editor-in-chief at a big-name publication. But I was like, you know, I need it.”
In 2019 Net co-founded La Coctelera Music, a multilingual podcast production company, where she and her co-founder Alex García Amat produce audio work for clients. Net manages the company and various contractors, but the work doesn’t require her to buy into what she called “corporate toxicity” the way her past jobs did. She likes it that way.
The task of leading a newsroom well while also trying to change the culture can feel nearly impossible, but Elite Truong, director for strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, says it’s important for managers to remember the power they do have.
“You have a lot of power. You get to figure out where this area of coverage is going, how you can shape it, what audiences you can reach — including ones that have been underserved or overlooked in different ways by the institution. So there isn’t a lot of public sympathy for them and there shouldn’t be, but it is a lot of pressure.”