Feminism, once considered radical, has gone mainstream. While the idea that women and men should be equal is decidedly progressive and good, there are some less-than-ideal consequences of feminism's widespread acceptance. One example? Businesses marketing themselves as feminist and profiting off their rebranding but not practicing what they preach operationally. Let's call it selective feminism.
Racked's recently published takedown of Miki Agrawal (pictured above), the founder of period-proof underwear company Thinx, is troubling for a host of reasons — not least of which is Agrawal's alleged behavior. Hilary George-Parkin's story describes Thinx as a company that outwardly promotes feminism but which is internally intolerant and at times hypocritical. But the exposé — like many similar stories — also strikes me as hypocritical and emblematic of how gleefully we react, culturally, when a woman falls (or is nudged) from her pedestal. But I'll get to that.
In the Racked story, Parkin sources several former and current female employees who chronicle how Agrawal often shamed her workers, forced them to take below-market salaries, and discouraged them from addressing their grievances with her leadership. "It was truly like being in an abusive relationship," said one former employee. "And I don't use that analogy lightly. I don't know if you've ever had the feeling when you walk into a place — whether it's with your family or a job or a friendship circle — and you simply just don't know how the other person is going to react."
Later in the story, Parkin reveals how Agrawal perceived criticism as a personal attack. Even as Agrawal promoted the company's open and communicative company policy, employees indicate that it wasn't the case. "In practice, however, many sources say this meant they were discouraged from speaking up about problems lest they be construed as 'ganging up' on Agrawal," wrote Parkin.
We should hold these corporations accountable for their actions — regardless of whether a man or a woman is running the company.
Other reported company policies are difficult to reconcile given the "women-first" persona presented externally. Astonishingly, employees say they were allotted just two weeks leave with full pay after giving birth and rarely given raises despite the company's reported tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
The discrepancy between image and action is not uncommon in startups nor companies run by women. Sophia Amoruso, founder of now-bankrupt clothing site NastyGal, encountered criticism similar to Agrawal's. Employees at NastyGal described a culture that was inhibitive, catty, and ultimately hollow despite it's seemingly "woke" persona.
A similar example of this phenomena is Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the disgraced pharmaceutical testing startup Theranos. While Theranos technology was revealed to be a sham, Holmes was subject to character assassinations that frequently had gendered undertones before and after the public implosion of her company.
While the allegations against Agrawal and Amoruso are absolutely concerning, it's just as disconcerting that we, as a culture, are so quick to tear down women in power. Rarely do you see an article like this castigating male CEOs for their leadership. And have you ever read a criticism of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick that begins with an analysis of what he is wearing? You certainly can't say the same about Holmes.
What Racked's Agrawal article decries is systemic in startup culture. Younger employees and millennials are often overworked and underpaid — but male CEOs are infrequently blamed nor denounced to the degree Agrawal has been. While it's necessary to hold feminists accountable, it's difficult to deny the antifeminist implications of attacking a woman for "not being feminist enough."
So yes, while it's disturbing but unsurprising that companies would seek to profit off of feminism and so brazenly practice the opposite, it's also disturbing but unsurprising that our deeply misogynistic culture revels in stories about companies and leaders who do just that. Companies will always seek to profit off of appearing progressive; such is the nature of marketing and capitalism. But, culturally, we should hold these corporations accountable for their actions — regardless of whether a man or a woman is running the company.