What's Next For 'Feminist' Company THINX After Employee Backlash?

Update 3/17: THINX cofounder Miki Agrawal released a personal statement on Medium in response to the hubbub over Racked's story, arguing that she did the best she could while managing a fast-growing company: "Yes, I have made a TON of mistakes along the way but I can proudly say that our company has grown from an idea in my head to an innovation that is worn by millions of satisfied women globally in a few short years. And we have been at the forefront of the period feminism movement which truly is eliminating shame in the period space."
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Agrawal defended herself against criticism that she didn’t offer employees adequate pay and benefits, talking about the big bonuses she paid out and the elaborate retreat she hosted. She also admitted that THINX lacked the organizational structure to handle the demands of her growing company, and that she doesn't have the right disposition or management style to serve as CEO. "I'm not the best suited for the operational CEO duties, nor was it my passion to do so," she wrote. (Agrawal did not directly respond to the accusations put forth by Tyler Ford — although her admission that she did not "call references because I needed butts in the seats fast" might explain a lack of consistency and faithfulness to the brand's messaging.)
It's true: HR and leadership issues are almost always par for the course with startups, especially ones that grow fast. Hopefully the help of new leadership will respond in a concrete way to employee concerns.
This original story ran on March 16.
On Tuesday, Racked writer Hilary George-Parkin reported on the culture of uncertainty and hypocrisy at “feminist utopia” THINX, a four-year-old startup known for its period-absorbent undies, cheeky ad campaigns, and outspoken cofounder and “SHE-EO” Miki Agrawal.
The allegations, issued anonymously from current and former employees who fear retaliation, included: “substandard pay" that is "easily $30,000 under industry standard salaries;” “flimsy benefits,” such as a mere two weeks full-paid parental leave “plus one week at half pay for the birthing parent;" and a frustrating salary negotiation process in which employees were “dismissed as ungrateful or told salaries were non-negotiable.”
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“Whenever anybody would try to negotiate with [Agrawal],” a former employee told Racked, “she would go back to the fact that we’re young and just be like, ‘Oh, you’re in your 20s. You don’t need a lot of money.’” Another source believes that “the only employees who […] successfully argued for additional money were two of the few white men who worked at the company.” The apparent lack of wage transparency and parental support are notable for a businesswoman who is expecting her own child, as well as for a person who has aggressively championed normalizing women and queer people’s voices and bodies. Unfortunately, employing feminism as a marketing tactic — not a set of very literal actions—makes hypocrisy inevitable.
Because feminism is still a concept associated with apocryphal, bra-burning shrews (and because it is, in many ways, at odds with “get it, girl!” ideas of capitalism), it’s pretty easy these days to declare yourself one on a purely aesthetic basis. In January 2016, Agrawal told a writer from The Cut, “I only started relating to being a feminist, literally, right when I started my company.” In short: Develop an apparently inclusive and very sellable kind of feminism, and you, too, can join the coven. The following month, in defense of THINX’s suggestive ads, Agrawal was quoted in The New York Times as saying that “her product empowered women in ways that lewd ads already visible in the subways clearly did not.” Her point is a fair one (the saturation of plastic surgery advertisements on certain train lines is a little obnoxious) but the question again is whether THINX affiliates — admirers, customers, employees — might not be happier with concrete forms of "empowerment," like fair benefits and compensation, for example. Or being afforded the ability to speak up for themselves, rather than through a self-appointed, “radical” proxy.
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After seeing Racked’s story, Tyler Ford, an agender writer, speaker, and media personality wrote a detailed account on Twitter about their “humiliating/upsetting” experiences collaborating with THINX. Ford (who declined Refinery29’s request for comment) claimed they were asked intrusive questions and asked to participate in a skit that made light of various pain points many trans people deal with. The 40-plus long Twitter story is a must-read, and builds on the suggestion that THINX isn't as progressive or inclusive as Agrawal would have her followers believe.
R29 contacted THINX for comment and a spokesperson replied (with a canned response she also provided to Mic): “We are devastated to hear about Tyler’s account of their experience at the THINX fashion show. The hypocrisy of it all...we see it. THINX seeks to break barriers for the marginalized and uplift the silenced, and clearly, we still have a ways to go. From the bottom of our hearts, we'd like to extend our deepest apologies to Tyler and the LGBTQIA community. Tyler, we recognize that we are undeserving of the lessons you are so gracefully teaching us — but we promise to learn from your bravery and do better.”
They added: “Our leadership is getting to the bottom of these allegations, and, as ever, we are actively working to address and improve our corporate culture. We look forward to updating the community as new leaders and corporate processes are put into place. Thank you, everyone, for bearing with us in the meantime.”
Agrawal announced last week that she is stepping down as CEO, but whoever takes the reins at THINX obviously has their work cut out for them. Female and non-binary employees are especially vulnerable to harassment, alienation, and unreasonable demands in work environments that lack concrete HR guidelines. (Particularly in startup workplaces, which can sometimes champion exploitation and abuse under the guise of abrasiveness and productive confrontation.) However, HR is hardly a panacea — just ask former Uber employee Susan Fowler. In the absence of structural checks, employees will take their cues for what is and isn’t acceptable from the top.
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