Guest editor Rumneek Johal: Rethink what a leader’s supposed to look like
The editor in chief of 5XPress is one of our guest editors for Women’s History Month.
Get to know UBC graduate Rumneek Johal as part of the following conversation on removing barriers to an equal world, the role of media in empowering marginalized communities, and how to elevate the voices of underrepresented groups in society.
WJ (VTJ): When you consider this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #BreakTheBias, what’s top of mind for you?
RJ: I think for many women in media and tech —or in just about any industry—we have to be exceptional in order to get our foot in the door. It’s rare that people in power look past their own biases to take a chance on us. As editor in chief of 5XPress, I was given this opportunity at 23 years old because someone was willing to take a chance on me. I had the credentials, but I was young and just starting out in my career. By being given the opportunity to build something, to make mistakes, to construct a writing team full of both new and experienced writers, and to guide the editorial voice and vision of this platform, I was able to come into my own both as a journalist and editor.
Breaking the bias means deconstructing what we think a leader is meant to or supposed to look like, and what we deem adequate in order for people to get their foot in the door. Impostor syndrome for young women in leadership is extremely real, not because we doubt our own capabilities—but because we know what preconceived notions of us we are often up against. Put women in leadership, support them, and believe in them. Then watch what they can do.
What do you believe the role of tech and media should be in empowering marginalized communities in society? Is it playing this role?
Access is so important. I often think about how, while we are making revolutionary strides in tech and media across the world, we have to pay attention to who we are able to reach with these advancements. How are we empowering and bringing in the next generation?
When I think about the work I do at 5XPress, it really is about creating a space for teaching and learning that can span generations new and old. To do this we need to make sure the work we do is accessible. Can our parents’ generation, including those without a post-secondary degree, be called into these conversations? My perspective is that if only the most privileged benefit from the advancements in media and tech, then perhaps they aren’t that revolutionary after all.
What challenges, if any, in your professional career do you think you’ve faced because of your gender?
As a young woman who has been given the opportunity to be in leadership positions, I am still constantly having to prove myself because of my age and my gender. Despite having education, experience and knowing what I’m talking about, there are constantly people who will attempt to interrogate the validity of both my credentials and my voice. Often, this is something I’m just expected to shoulder and navigate on my own, because for young women it often just “comes with the territory.”
In addition, the invisible labour of women is often underestimated. We are constantly under a microscope as women in media or in leadership positions, and are subject to constant scrutiny and criticism. From what we look like, to what we do in our time off, to people questioning our qualifications or whether or not we even know what we’re talking about—we are constantly navigating this both in and outside of our workplace. Men with powerful voices and strong opinions are often applauded for their leadership prowess, but to be a woman in power who doesn’t apologize for her loud voice is to be met with constant criticism or unsolicited commentary. It’s exhausting, but it won’t stop us.
Imagine a gender-equal world? What is the biggest change you think needs to happen to get there?
It requires people who benefit from this inequality, namely men, to be transparent about the privileges they receive and to be vocal in advocating for women. Share with your colleagues how much money you make, listen to and amplify the voices of your female colleagues in meetings, interrogate your own internalized biases, and have your female colleagues’ backs. It’s easy to look away when it doesn’t benefit you or involve you, but in order to make it we need people who do not benefit from helping us to also have a stake in wishing to see us succeed.
No one is completely defined by their work, so what do you say when people ask you what you do?
I prefer not being defined by my work. I love what I do, and tell people I am a journalist and editor in chief, but I enjoy these roles for what they allow me to do. I am able to build community, create connections, start conversations, ask questions and challenge the status quo. The work I do, specifically in championing and elevating South Asian voices is extremely important to me. I grew up in Surrey and was accustomed to negative media representations of my community. I want to counter those, but also create intra-community dialogue and help give a platform to underrepresented voices in my community.
Who in your life helps you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
Aside from my incredible team… my Google Calendar. I recently learned the “calendarized” approach to work and life through the Groundwork Workshop led by executive coach Amrita Ahuja. Now, in order to get things done, I rely heavily on my calendar to schedule literally everything, including downtime, to make sure I can get my tasks done and stay grounded and centred through it all. If I don’t schedule in both the tasks I need to complete, as well as time for workouts or time away from my screen, I know I will be burned out. In a fast-paced world that almost expects people to be perpetually busy, exhausted, or burnt out, I’m trying to choose a different way.
Who is someone that most people haven’t heard of, but who you think regularly has ideas worth hearing and sharing?
Your favourite Twitter follow or newsletter subscription?
What else is in your daily media diet?
Twitter, TikTok and Instagram are the main places I find my sources these days. I think that social media has a way of amplifying people’s voices and stories directly from the source. It empowers people to tell their stories on their own terms. Many times it's people from marginalized backgrounds who fear that the mainstream media won’t hear their stories or won’t tell them right, who go to social media to speak their truth themselves.
What’s a little thing everyone can do to elevate the voices of women and underrepresented groups in society?
If you are in the position to, hire women and underrepresented folks. Put your money where your mouth is and implement policies to support the hiring of diverse groups. But it can’t stop there. Beyond checking off a diversity box, ensure the folks you hire have the resources to be successful at what they do. Diversity needs to be accompanied by institutional and structural support.
On a smaller scale: share their work. So many of us, myself included, live in our little media ecosystems, and sometimes it’s easy to forget how vast the breadth of voices and content are in the world. Underrepresented voices are often lacking reach, and especially if they’re not conventional or palatable in their approach, they may struggle in building an audience. Share and amplify their work with your networks, and stand with them when they speak up.
Join the conversation: