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From the file

Feminism Inc. | The Wing was the perfect haven for professional women – until it wasn’t. Here’s what happens when corporate feminism turns sour.

Yomi Adegoke: Don’t throw stones in glass offices

Thursday 3 December 2020

The downfall of the girl bosses was also – mostly – the fault of the girl bosses

For one day in June, the #BlackoutTuesday hashtag dominated Instagram. A black square was posted by celebrities and civilians and corporations alike, flooding timelines in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd by police the week before. Almost immediately, it was panned as an example of aimless virtue signalling, with little actual effort to affect change. 

But in actual fact, the black square did have an effect, even if it wasn’t necessarily the intended one. It was responsible for an uprising.   

The black square became used as evidence of hypocrisy – rather than of equality or anti-racism – and the charge was levelled at a number of well-known self-styled feminist and “inclusive” brands, in particular. Seeing these public declarations of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, past and present employees began to call out the chasm between the working culture they had experienced first-hand and the ethics that were now being espoused so enthusiastically in public. 

Resignations followed, thick and fast: a procession of midi-dress-wearing, white, middle-class women. They would indeed be a part of ushering in the change – just not in the way they thought. Days later, black squares would be replaced with remorseful Instagram statements, announcing their departures from companies they say had been built to make a difference. 

So what happened? Let’s remind ourselves. 8 June marked the beginning of the cull – with the end of Christene Barberich’s tenure at Refinery29, the site she co-founded 15 years ago. She stepped down in response to the #BlackAtR29 hashtag, which saw Black former employees outlining their experiences of racism at the company.

Next was Leandra Medine Cohen on 11 June, founder of the lifestyle site Man Repeller, who left after accusations of discrimination and criticism over the lack of diverse content. The site shut permanently four months later. On the same day was perhaps the most notorious ousting: Audrey Gelman, the co-founder of women’s members club The Wing, who left her CEO position as employees voiced anger at the company’s “systemic” mistreatment of ethnic minority staff.

Just a day later, founder Jen Gotch announced her departure from lifestyle company Ban.do, after a string of allegations of racism. And on 14 June, Yael Aflalo resigned as CEO of cult clothes label Reformation for the same reason. 

It was shocking at the time. It felt like a moment. But, in hindsight, it was inevitable: the gap between what brands purport to be and what they actually are has always been there, but it became unsustainable as soon as pseudo-activism was thrown into the equation.

This was a problem years in the making: “purpose marketing” has long been deployed to engage, or at least attempt to engage, a generation of consumers who are highly political, more liberal and anti-capitalist. We saw it in a cringe-inducing Pepsi advert from 2017 (in which Kendall Jenner of the Kardashian Klan appears at a protest, befriending a cop over a can of soda); Gillette’s notorious #MeToo-inspired campaign from last year (which sees the razor brand asking “Is this the best a man can get?” before showing examples of sexual harassment, bullying and toxic masculinity); and Chipotle’s infamous “Homo estas?” ad (in which they celebrated marriage equality in 2015 with a rainbow-wrapped burrito).

Our lack of trust in traditional brands worked in different ways, both making us cynical of their efforts – but also insulating them from the type of scrutiny reserved for a new wave of moralising startups. The plain truth is that we don’t expect ethics from Coke or Nike. But we do expect it from the new guard: particularly from the female founders who sold themselves – and their products – on the idea that they were better. That they were building a model of business with equality sewn into its very fabric.

The likes of Gelman, Cohen & Co. posited themselves as a pushback against a system that they were in fact emulating, for profit. In the same way that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are identical except for a pair of eyelashes and a bow, these women were offering white, male patriarchy in a dress – one with pockets, of course.

The politicisation of their products was, and always had been, another form of marketing: a recent Vox article notes the interchangeability between the adverts of “millennial-facing, direct-to-consumer brands” and the “social justice” slideshows that ruled Instagram at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests; slides that told you how to be a good ally, how to combat unconscious biases, or how to share resources.

The female founders themselves were integral to the branding, too; the personification of their company’s moral compass. And in the end, they fell on swords that they had sharpened themselves, publicly held to standards that they advocated for. 

Of course, it would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that this phenomenon is specific to affluent, white women. But, generally speaking, it is the result of a unique position of both privilege and disempowerment: one that sees them able to decry the behaviour of ‘“rich white men” as if it negates their own rich, white privilege.

It would also be intellectually dishonest to pretend that these downfalls are not partly down to the fact women are held to higher standards. Given how few female CEOs there are, the only place they appear over-represented is in takedown longreads. Former Elle digital editor Leah Chernikoff points to an undercurrent of “schadenfreude-laced glee” that stirs beneath the general interest in these stories. “Though the particulars of each woman’s story were different, there was a prevailing sense of comeuppance,” she writes.  

This is true. But it is also true that these are benchmarks by which these women actively sought to be judged. Jeff Bezos is harder to “cancel” primarily because he never really bothers to change out of his devil costume. Meanwhile, Gelman positioned herself as the antidote to the toxic tech-bro culture that plagued so many startups.

Much the same can be said of any of the women whose brands became casualties of June’s uprising. Sure, the glass ceiling remains an issue, and sexism undoubtedly played a role in what happened. But it was their throwing of stones from glass offices that ultimately led to them getting cut.