The Career Killer No One Talks About

Complainer. Troublemaker. Difficult. Overly sensitive. Bitch. It’s hard for a lot of women to speak up against workplace discrimination because we fear we’ll be called these ugly names, marginalized, or passed over for future opportunities. We worry we’ll lose our jobs, or worse. We second-guess our gut reactions and wonder, is it just me? Did I miss out on that opportunity because of my gender — or because I didn’t work hard enough? We overanalyze every negative comment and find a way to rationalize the bad behavior. Maybe we even think we deserve it.

Workplace discrimination is something that many people will face over the course of their careers, but it's rarely openly discussed. Sure, there are HR-run sessions to discourage biases and protect employers. And many of us will share our horror stories with friends and loved ones. But it is incredibly risky to speak publicly on the topic — and even harder to pursue legal action. Ellen Pao was publicly eviscerated, her private life splayed all over the media, during the trial for her gender discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. And despite the stories of how she was passed over for promotions and excluded from office events, Pao lost the case and had to pay her former employer’s lawyer fees. It’s not exactly a story to inspire other women to take their own legal action.

Yet these stories aren't uncommon. Discrimination against women happens in all industries and at all levels. And its effects can be devastating. It destroys self-esteem and leaves women to make difficult decisions: Stay and put up with the abuse, or speak up and risk losing your livelihood.

Emily* was a year into her job when she was in a terrible cab accident. Her injuries were so serious, she was required to have two shoulder surgeries and a number of spinal injections. Before the accident, she had a fairly good working relationship with her boss — but it quickly changed for the worse. “He immediately started acting completely different,” she says. “He was very cold and impatient that I had to be out for so many doctor’s appointments. He antagonized me and questioned every decision I made. He wouldn’t approve my projects and would go months at a time without speaking to me, even though we worked three feet from each other.”

Emily took only a week off following each surgery — although her doctor recommended she take six weeks — because HR and her manager wouldn’t approve more leave. She's allergic to pain medicine and couldn’t even take Advil. And yet she showed up every day, on time, and worked through the pain, with one arm in a cast. She was sick with anxiety — terrified about losing her job. The medical expenses drained her bank account. She didn’t feel like she could go to job interviews wearing a cast.

“I was under his thumb for two and a half years,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. Then, after a long conversation with a former coworker, Emily finally realized she had to get out. It was like a dam breaking, she says, to have someone confirm that she wasn’t crazy, that her boss was abusive, and that she needed to leave.

“I didn’t realize how bad it was," Emily says, "because I had so many things that were so bad going on — all of the pain, and the surgeries, and the medical treatments — that I didn’t have the bandwidth to see things for what they really were.”
Six months ago, when she did finally decide to quit, Emily filed a claim with the New York Labor Department requesting unemployment benefits. Typically, you have to be let go from a job in order to collect, but Emily had been treated so poorly that she was granted the benefits. When the investigator asked why she didn’t want to pursue legal action, Emily expressed concern about her former colleagues: “The only people who could be my witnesses currently work there, and I don’t want to put them through that," she explains. "You know? That’s not what I wanted to do to my colleagues who cared for me and who I cared for so deeply.”

There was also a fear that maybe she didn’t have a strong enough case. “How can you prove someone’s silence or rejection if there’s nothing said or done?" she asks. "He was very savvy," she says of her former boss. "He used his power for evil.”

Emily has since found a new job that she loves. She feels supported and appreciated and is working on projects she believes in. Slowly, her self-esteem is coming back. She was reluctant to be interviewed for this story and declined to be part of our photo shoot because the industry she works in is small, and she still fears retaliation. But she's found some relief in sharing her story and speaking up for herself. She wants other women to know that they, too, can survive and thrive after these terrible situations. “This shit is rough," she says, "but it’s not forever. And in the end, I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of the outcome.”

Emily’s story is heartbreaking, but at the core, there’s hope. So many women fight these workplace battles every single day, and while some stories make front-page news, most are kept private. We want to encourage women to point out discrimination. We aren’t complainers or bitches because we speak our minds; we are competent employees who deserve to be treated fairly.

Ahead, seven women tell their stories. We hope they will inspire you to share your own and support each other in these daily struggles.

*Name has been changed.

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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
"It made me feel so small."

Teresa King was three years into her job at a nail polish manufacturer when her boss told her she was "too fat and ugly" to represent the brand on a business trip abroad. It can be difficult to even imagine how someone could say something so terrible to an employee, and it's even more unfathomable when you meet Teresa in person. She’s shy on the phone, yet very open about her experience. She’s friendly, quick to laugh, but very professional. This is someone who has her shit together.

Teresa was working as an assistant for the VP of International Sales at the nail polish company, and the job started off promising. There seemed to be great opportunity for career growth when the company offered to pay for Teresa to attend nail tech school and get her license. Teresa was a natural; she graduated from the program at the top of her class.

Her boss encouraged her to seek practical experience outside of work, so Teresa started doing nails during New York Fashion Week. She forged relationships with Nonie Creme of Butter London and worked with all the major nail brands, from OPI to Essie. All the while, she was still busy with her day job, taking on additional responsibilities that were not part of her job description, like running the company’s social media pages and writing a newsletter.

“I had great confidence at the time,” Teresa says. “Especially working with Nonie, who encouraged everyone to be themselves and express themselves.”

Eight months after Teresa received her license, her boss suggested she attend a trade show in London. Teresa was game to go — but ultimately, management said she didn’t have enough experience. She was disappointed, but she understood. There would be more opportunities, and she continued to seek outside work so she could develop her skills.

Three years into the job, the company’s distributor from South Africa invited Teresa to attend a big beauty show in Africa. Her boss thought it was a great idea — Teresa could go and educate the nail techs on how to use the products as well as do demos at the show.

“I felt very confident that I had enough experience, especially with the company’s products,” Teresa says. “I was very excited about it, and the distributor was very excited about it. I got all the necessary shots, made sure my passport was up-to-date, and bought new clothes.”

As it got closer to the date, Teresa pushed her boss to make the necessary travel arrangements. He emailed the main office to get approval, and a couple of days later, he got a phone call. Teresa remembers thinking something was off because her boss was being so quiet on the phone.

“It was so surreal," she says. "I was standing by the fax machine. He hung up, and he turned to me — he just kind of blurted it out — he said, ‘That was the main office. They discussed it, and they said you’re too fat and too ugly to represent the company at the show in South Africa.’"

“My heart dropped into my stomach," Teresa continues. "I was so shocked. He immediately started tripping over his words. He said, ‘Maybe the words were more like, unattractive and overweight’ — trying to soften the blow. But he wasn’t apologetic or anything. I wanted to hysterically cry my eyes out, but I didn’t want to show emotion in front of him. I didn’t want him to go back and tell them I had an emotional response to their decision. So I just sucked it up and said okay and went back to my desk.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
As soon as Teresa left the office that evening, she burst into tears. She cried the whole subway ride back to Brooklyn and then called her sister and cried more.

“I’ve been an overweight woman my entire life, since I was about six. When I was around 30, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, and the doctors told me one of the side effects is the extra weight.”

Throughout her time at the company, Teresa says, people would make rude remarks, commenting on what she was eating or what she was wearing. “As an overweight person, these things happen all the time in everyday life," she adds. "So I didn’t think anything about them. It had never occurred to me that this kind of discrimination would ever happen to me in the workplace, because it had never happened before. I was always at the top of my class in school. I excelled at every job. I had no context for this type of thing.”

After the incident, Teresa started pulling back at work. She stopped taking on the extra responsibilities, and she told her boss she’d no longer write the newsletter. She focused on her freelance work and just tried to make it through each day. Her family members encouraged her to file a complaint, get a lawyer, and fight back.

“How was I going to fight them when I had no proof? It was all verbal,” Teresa says. “There was nothing in writing. There was no record. They were obviously going to deny what was said. This is a multi-million-dollar company, and I’m just me. What was I really going to do?”

Teresa lasted six more months before she realized that enough was enough. She had enough freelance assignments to support herself, so she quit.

The executive team was shocked. They had Teresa come out to the main offices for an exit interview that involved three execs, including the company’s owner. They begged her to stay, offered her a promotion, and even went so far as to offer Teresa her boss’s job. Teresa politely declined. In the end, they gave her $5,000 severance, which felt to Teresa like a buy-off to prevent her from filing a suit.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely Teresa would have been successful had she chosen to sue the company; New York, like 48 other states, has no laws protecting employees from weight discrimination.

Teresa wrote a little bit about her experience in a Facebook post and was shocked when a very successful nail tech reached out to share her own story of discrimination. For Teresa, this was a really important moment; she realized she wasn’t alone. This gave Teresa hope, and it's one of the reasons she so willingly shared her experience with Refinery29.

“I’m not the only one who has had this happen to me," she explains. "It has happened to other people. And it’s important to share this, because I felt like I was the only one. And it made me feel so small...Maybe sharing my experience will give someone else hope or send a message that good things can come out of a horrible, horrible thing. I’m so happy and fulfilled at the career I have today. I’m so passionate about what I do.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
"That's a personal problem."

Andi Yancey has a hard time keeping a straight face during our photo shoot. The photographer tells her to look serious and be strong, but her bubbly personality keeps breaking through. After spending a morning with the freelance makeup artist, it’s obvious that she’s rarely somber; she’s quick with a smile and a kind word. Which just makes her discrimination story all the more infuriating.

Andi grew up in Atlanta and worked as a hairstylist for a number of years before going to cosmetology school. At 25, she was a single mom with a 5-year-old daughter and a desire to grow her career — so she decided to move to Manhattan. The plan was for Andi to go up to New York, find an apartment, get settled, and then send for her daughter. She took a job at a big cosmetics company with a location in Times Square, gamely agreeing to a 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift with the promise that her schedule would change once her daughter arrived.

Everything was going according to plan — until those six months were up, and Andi's employer refused to change her schedule.

There was no way Andi could work the late-night shift when she had a child at home to care for. Where would she find a babysitter? And if Andi were up until 2 a.m. or later, how would she care for her daughter when she woke up at the crack of dawn? It was impossible.

Andi continued to request a change, and the company continued to deny her. Finally, she had to start missing shifts because there was no one to care for her kid. She appealed the assistant manager, and that’s when things got downright ugly, Andi says:

“I asked him, nicely, how we could come up with a solution to the problem with my schedule. 'I want to be here; I want to work this job,' [I told him]. 'I just need a different shift, so I can take care of my daughter at night.' He said, ‘That’s a personal problem, and we can’t accommodate you.’ I was shocked. I said, ‘I thought you were willing to work with students around their schedules.’ He said they did, but this was not the same thing. Wait, [I thought], you accommodate students, but not a parent with a live, human kid? That’s a 'personal problem?'... He was so nasty about it. And they did not change my schedule.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
Andi was pulled into a meeting with four store managers and was pressured to quit. But she was determined not to let them win. She decided she'd hold out to be fired, so she could collect unemployment, which she desperately needed so she could spend time looking for other work.

She emailed HR and tried to rally their support, without much luck. She reached out to the EEOC to see if there was some discrimination complaint she could file, but since she didn’t have anything in writing, she didn’t have a case. It was a stressful two weeks — the most stressful of her life, Andi says — and in the end, she was fired because she was unable to work her assigned shift.

That was the last time Andi worked full-time for a big company. Losing her job was a catalyst for her to launch her freelance career — and she’s had great success in the years since. For Andi, like for so many women, the corporate world’s policies were incompatible with her needs. So she found a way to make it on her own.

There’s been a spike in women-owned businesses in the past decade, particularly among Black and Hispanic women. Andi is a powerful example of how a single mother can carve out her own niche in the competitive beauty world. And that’s one of the reasons why she wanted to share this story.

“I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for single mothers that are trying to get by,” Andi says. “Maybe this will inspire some single mother out there, you know, who is having a tough time. Maybe it will get them through.”

Andi is an inspiration; she turned her negative experience into something positive. “I had a goal. I did it,” she says. “I ended up meeting my husband...I had another baby. It has definitely been a story I never dreamed of in a million years.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
"Sexism was rampant."

Carly Figueroa grew up in San Diego, CA, but she has a slight southern drawl that she shows off when talking about her time working for a local news station in Lubbock, TX. Maybe it’s affected, or maybe she picked it up during the nearly two years she worked there, but the accent is charming — and part of that nice-girl vibe that makes it clear why Figueroa is a successful TV news reporter.

Sexism in the world of broadcast journalism world is nothing new; just look at the struggles Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and Connie Chung have faced on a national stage. On a more local level, who can forget the male anchor who wore the same suit for an entire year, while his female co-anchor received regular criticism for her wardrobe? The fact that broadcast is an old-fashioned industry doesn’t make these discrepancies any easier to stomach.

When Carly graduated from San Diego State, she took the job in Lubbock with wide-eyed optimism that was quickly tempered.
“I’ll never forget my first photo shoot,” she says. Carly was 24, a size 4, fresh out of college, and totally adorable. That didn’t stop the retoucher from doing a total overhaul. “He lengthened my legs, brightened my teeth, made my eyes bigger, trimmed my waist,” she recalls. Carly felt it was completely unnecessary to make those changes: She was a journalist — not an up-and-coming starlet. What did it really matter what she looked like? “That was the first time I realized that the girls were supposed to be the movie stars of the newscast, and the men were supposed to be the credible watchdogs.”

That didn’t stop Carly from pursuing serious assignments, always trying to prove that she could do the hard stuff. “It was so easy for the news director to assign the cute girl a piece on the world’s largest snow cone, or something like that. But I wanted to go cover the terrorist at Texas Tech.”

She regularly got weird mail from viewers — all of the women who worked on-air did. There were creepy letters from a guy who wanted to arm wrestle, and rude missives on the color of Carly’s eyebrows. She couldn’t help but wonder if people were even listening to what she was saying.

When Carly moved to Salt Lake City, a bigger market, and worked the morning broadcast, she got to cover the tougher stories she wanted; she was on-air from 5 a.m. to almost noon every weekday. But, two years into her career, she still struggled to be taken seriously, especially when it came to dealing with cops:

“Once I got to to the point where I felt like I was finally getting the serious stories, I realized it didn’t matter, because most of the other reporters out there were men, and the police were only going to speak candidly to the guys. They were always minding their Ps and Qs with me, unless they’re doing something like offering me a ride up to the crime scene, or saying something about my high heels or my skirt, or how I was improperly dressed for the weather. Sexism was rampant. It was every day! It was all the time!”

Carly says this with a laugh, but it’s clear she’s annoyed. She’s smart and determined, and it is deeply sad that her credibility was questioned just because she’s a woman. What’s maybe worse is that while she was trying to make a name for herself in Salt Lake City, Carly says she was bullied by her female boss. When she accepted the job and left Lubbock, she had hoped this new manager would be her champion. Instead, Carly found herself dreading work every day.
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
“I remember I stuttered on-air one time, because it was live television and people stutter in conversation all the time. And afterward, the news director asked me — in front of the entire station — ‘Are you okay? I thought you were having a stroke.’ I just remember wanting to respond, ‘If you thought I was having a stroke, why didn’t you call an ambulance?’”

Another time, the director called Carly a few minutes before she was supposed to go live to say her eyebrows were too dark — too “Charlie Chaplin-esque.” As if that weren’t humiliating enough, the news director had her on speakerphone and was dressing Carly down while another colleague was in the room.

Carly was signed on for a three-year contract, and there was no way to get out of it without ruining her reputation. So she stayed put, but was miserable. And it wore away at her. “I’ve always been very positive, happy-go-lucky. My coworkers have always found me as a source of positivity in the workplace. But in those last two years it, was gone for me. Coming to work was really hard and sad.”

Carly grew a thicker skin and stopped caring about what the news director said to her, and so her boss turned her attention to other colleagues. Carly would have never even thought about filing a complaint with HR until a fellow reporter wrote a blog post sharing her bad experiences with the news director and expressing her desire to get out of the industry altogether.

That’s when Carly realized she wasn’t alone. She decided to reach out to HR to file a complaint, and she encouraged her colleagues to do the same.

“At that point, I was leaving already, so it wasn’t about me. But at the same time, that’s probably why I had the guts to do it,” she says. “Even if nothing came of it, at least there’s a record that something happened. So if someone else down the line has an issue, someone who might be just a few months into a three-year contract, HR might finally do something about it.”

But Carly had already decided to move to New York City with her boyfriend, who works in advertising. After five years of chasing her own dream, Carly felt it was time to let her partner pursue his career. She got tired of hoping the industry would change — that women would get more respect, that they wouldn’t be “put out to pasture” when they reached a certain age.

“I haven’t been home for Christmas in five years,” Carly says. “I was just giving, giving, giving, thinking that if I kept doing that, eventually I would be taken seriously, I would be promoted, I would be loved and valued. But they just kept taking.” Carly doesn’t think she even realized how bad it was until she started her new job at The Huffington Post and realized just how good things can be when you have a boss who cares.

One thing Carly does wish: that she had been more transparent with her coworkers in the first place. Maybe they could have banded together earlier and fought for a fairer workplace. She encourages more women to speak up — and that’s why she’s telling her story.

“There are probably lots of women out there who’ve had [it] worse than me, who are being sexually harassed by their bosses, or who are staying in a terrible job because they don’t think they deserve something better,” she says. “But there are better jobs out there that are inspiring and fulfilling. We deserve those jobs.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
"Black Models Matter."

This fall, Ashley B. Chew blew up New York Fashion Week when a street style photographer snapped a picture of her holding a bag that read “Black Models Matter.” The 24-year-old was visiting NYC from Indianapolis, where she’s an art student, but she has a lot of experience in the fashion world — working as a production assistant for a number of shows, as well as walking the runway for Hendrik Vermeulen and Antonio Urzi, along with other designers.

Going to casting calls can be a bit of a crapshoot for models; of course, designers have a very specific vision for who they want to wear their clothes, and it can change from season to season and year to year. But Chew says that, after three years working behind the scenes, she’s become pretty familiar with the designers who are excited to have diverse models, and those who generally just have one or two token women of color.

In September, Ashley and a friend who’s also a Black model attended a casting where they felt they were passed over because of the color of their skin. Afterwards, they started spitballing ideas of a hashtag that might draw more attention to the lack of diversity in the fashion world. They landed on #BlackModelsMatter, and a day later, when Ashley was bored waiting at yet another casting call, she painted the phrase on her plain-black tote (she always carries paintbrushes and paints with her). It wasn’t long before someone snapped her picture, but Ashley didn’t really think much of it — she’d been photographed dozens of times before. She worked a full day, never checked her phone, and had no idea that she was blowing up the internet with her hand-painted bag.

Ashley tears up when talking about the impact of that photo. The comments and coverage that poured in after it went viral ranged from hateful to hopeful. Thankfully, she seems more focused on the positive feedback. So many young women reached out to thank her for pointing out the elephant in the room.

It can be easy to be dismissive of models; their lives seem so glamorous, and since a few of them are millionaires, it’s easy to assume they all are (in fact, most models live on less than $20,000 per year). Some might even argue that Ashley’s hashtag co-opts the tag #BlackLivesMatter, detracting attention from more important issues. She dismisses the detractors.

"The words were important and appropriate for the time,” she argues. “It was New York Fashion Week, [the words were written] on a fashion piece, in a fashion capital. I was not in the middle of New York City on a random day with a picket sign screaming for attention.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
To simply dismiss Ashley as an attention-seeker is to ignore the bigger problem at hand. It’s not really about whether Ashley gets a gig; it’s about the lack of women of color walking the runways in general. This fall, The Fashion Spot took a closer look at the diversity of the Spring 2015 fashion shows and found the number of models of color was up more than 2% from last season. It’s an incremental change, but it’s something. It’s important to Ashley, because more models of color on the runway could lead to more models of color in national advertising campaigns. And the millions of young Black, Hispanic, and Asian women in this country are excited to see themselves represented in mainstream fashion, for a change.

Ashley plans on moving to New York after she graduates this December. She’ll continue to pursue her art, modeling, and working behind-the-scenes at shows. And she’ll continue to push to see changes in the industry. In her ideal world, the top cosmetic companies will manufacture products for all skin types and the top stylists will be comfortable working with all kinds of hair. Ashley will no longer be chosen to walk the runways just because she’s the token Black girl or because her hair is in style this season, but because she’s beautiful.

Ashley speaks freely about these tough subjects because she’s optimistic that things will change if people are made aware of the problem — even if progress is slow.

“As long as my story affects one reader, I’ve done my job,” she says. “Because you never know what one person might change. I feel like baby steps are still steps.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
“Is everyone who works there like you?”

Bit Blair moved from North Carolina five years ago to attend the Library Sciences program at Pratt (with the thought that there would be more librarian jobs in New York City than down south). It was maybe the worst time to get an MLS: The market crash made it more difficult for older librarians to retire, and overall library budgets were slashed. Not many people were hiring when Blair’s class graduated in 2012. And yet somehow, the two white men in the class managed to find jobs (both management roles), while every single woman was still looking.

“It really drove it home,” says Bit, without a hint of bitterness in her voice. “I was interviewing for part-time cataloging jobs, while the men were getting hired to management positions straight out of graduation.”

But Bit wasn’t just facing gender bias; she faced discrimination over her sexual orientation as well. This became clear on an interview for one of those part-time jobs. The hiring manager — a white man — first told her she was overqualified for the job, before even looking at her résumé. When he came across her internship at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, he asked: “Is everyone who works there like you?”

Bit was taken aback — but unsure if she was overreacting. She asked the interviewer what he meant, and he brushed it off; he “meant” to ask if everyone there was a librarian. Bit didn’t get the job. And when she ran into a friend who had interviewed for the same position, with the same hiring manager, her suspicions were confirmed.

This friend was also a lesbian and had also worked at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. “I told her about my experience,” Bit says, “and she thought the whole thing was really weird. She got the job, and when the topic of the Herstory Archives came up, he told her she was really nice to help ‘those people.’ I realized that he treated us so differently because he didn’t realize that she was gay, and he could tell I was.”

Would Bit tone down her look — for that interview, she wore a full suit and tie, and these days she’s sporting bright-blue hair — in order to get a job? She admits she’s thought about it, but knows she doesn’t really want to work somewhere that doesn’t accept her as she is. But there have been jobs where she hasn’t been comfortable being open about her sexuality. She was working on an assignment as a researcher at Good Morning America before Robin Roberts came out. Bit said she knew instantly the morning anchor was a lesbian — “I could tell she wasn’t comfortable in a dress,” she adds. But that Roberts was in the closet sent a clear message to Bit: ABC wasn’t a place where it was okay to be open about your sexuality.
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
Bit was no longer working at GMA when Roberts did come out in 2013, but she was really moved by the news. It changed the dynamics; had Bit still worked for ABC, she would have started to feel more free to be herself.

While there have been frustrating obstacles over the course of her career, Bit is quick to point out the positive experiences she’s had:
“I would say the biggest thing that has made a difference to me in every job is when women who have more tenure at the company reach out to less-experienced women. Every time I’ve done well at a company, it’s because an older woman has offered to help me out. That has always made a world of difference. I really think that, to end job discrimination, women really have to commit to support each other and trust each other.”

Bit isn’t embarrassed to talk about her experiences, but she isn’t an open book, either. She doesn’t run through a list of grievances during our interview, even though she’s clearly hit more than a few roadblocks. And these have had a big impact on her personal life as well. These days, she works as a transcriber with a service for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. She has significant student loan debt from her masters’ degree. Bit and her wife want to have kids, but right now, they can’t afford the high cost of fertility treatments. But she isn’t willing to change who she is to get a foot in the door, and she thinks it’s important for women to talk about the discrimination they face in a frank and open way.

“I really think it’s just a huge relief,” Bit says. “Because you question yourself, and you question your own sanity. But if you can hear other women say, ‘Oh, that happened to me, too,’ or ‘I didn’t know that was discrimination; I thought it was just me’...when women talk about discrimination with each other, they can band together and do something about it.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
“I was the only thing making it happen.”

Laini Moreno wants to be the next Rosario Dawson. She’s one of thousands of young women who flock to New York each year with plans to make it big — and she’s definitely not the first to arrive with a single suitcase and plans to live with roommates she found on Craigslist. But it certainly wasn’t easy for her to get here from Minnesota, and three months in, she’s still hustling to make her mark.

She arrives at our photo shoot in Lower Manhattan after a two-hour bus and train trip from the Bronx. Moreno is friendly, but on guard; she’s sensitive to comments that could be construed as critical, and is quick to assume the worst. Maybe that’s not surprising, seeing as she spent the past 12 years in Minneapolis, where she felt like she always stood out in the crowd — and not in a positive way. The color of her skin, her curly hair, her curvy figure — it’s hard not to notice Laini in a state where just 4% of the population is Hispanic. It wasn’t unusual for men in bars to make rude comments, but what was even more frustrating was the way she was treated at work.

“I was always the only woman of color at a job in Minnesota,” she says. “And the only time I’ve had a boss of color was when I was the boss.” Her coworkers frequently commented on her hair, always trying to touch it. She tells the story of her first day on a new job, when a stylist reached out and tried to grab a strand. “I know how to do Black hair,” the stylist said, when Laini tried to pull back. “I mean African-American hair.’” Laini was furious: “It’s as violating as if she reached out and twisted my nipples,” she says.

Laini had been working as an aesthetician at a spa when she decided enough was enough: It was time to move to Manhattan. She asked for a transfer to an NYC location; she was willing to take a pay cut just to pursue her dreams. Everything seemed to be moving along swimmingly: She got the job, gave notice on her apartment, started making plans to leave — when she got an email saying her transfer had been denied, without any explanation as to why.
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
Laini was crushed. She tried everything to get a reason, sending a number of emails to HR, her manager, and the NYC manager, many of which went unanswered. Because she thought she was good at her job, and they initially provided no reason for denying the transfer, she was left to wonder if the decision was based on her race. When she threatened to involve her family lawyer, she was told she was denied the job because her sales weren’t good enough. But she didn’t believe that at all — she says she had some of the highest sales in the store. “That was a slow spa,” she says, “I was the only thing making it happen.”

Laini had already given up her apartment; in a few weeks time, she’d essentially be homeless. Her family was in Baltimore. She didn’t have anyone to fall back on, and she was tired of waiting around, hoping other people would help her make her dreams a reality.

So she packed that single suitcase and moved to New York City less than six weeks after the spa denied her the transfer. Now, three months later, she’s still settling into the city, but she’s got a job at a jewelry store and she’s determined to make it happen. With Daddy Yankee playing in the background, Laini tells us about her adventures in the city, her audition for a role on Blue Bloods, her indignation at the way she was treated in Minneapolis. There’s some bravado about her, but the pictures reveal another side — the fear and uncertainty in her eyes. Laini’s incredibly strong, though, and fearlessly tells her story.

For so many women who face discrimination, there’s rarely hard-and-fast evidence to prove their employers are guilty. And when it comes down to moments of “he said/she said” or “she said/she said,” it takes a lot of strength to believe in yourself enough to speak up. Especially when you consider how discrimination can eat away at your self-esteem, leaving you feeling like a shell of your former self.

The odds are probably stacked against Laini. She’s Afro-Cuban. She’s a woman. She’s living alone in a city where she hardly knows anyone. Yet, she’s hopeful: She’s going to be a star, and moving to NYC is the first step on that journey.

“Minnesota isn’t set up for someone who looks like me to succeed in something like acting, at all. Unless you want to play a slave all the time,” she says. “It’s not the place. So, this was definitely good that I did this on my own and got to New York. I’m much happier.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
"They're doing this because I'm pregnant."

How do you lean in when you want to have kids? That’s a question thousands of young women ask every year, and one Alex* found herself contemplating four years ago. She and her husband were ready to have a baby, but Alex, a photo editor, wanted to find a job that would be supportive of her decision before she conceived. So she reached out to a former boss, who was now the editor-in-chief of a national magazine, and she was frank with him: “I want to come work for you,” she explained, “but I’m planning on having a baby.”

“He was so supportive,” Alex recalls. “He said he was 100% behind me. And I totally believed him, and that was great.” She started the job, got pregnant shortly after, and was soon promoted to oversee three more photo departments — and was promised a significant bonus. Things seemed to be going perfectly, until her boss announced he was leaving. Alex, worried about losing her biggest advocate, told him she was pregnant. She knew he was leaving the company because it was a difficult place to work, and he didn’t exactly reassure her that everything would be okay.

Alex didn’t tell anyone else about the pregnancy, but continued doing the hard work of overseeing four magazine photo departments. She moved an archive from California to New York City, hired new employees, and coordinated dozens of shoots a month. Alex was good at her job, and she really liked it. She had no reason to think it would be an issue when she announced that she was having a baby. But the fallout was swift — and it was major.

In the late winter, when Alex was more than seven months pregnant, she was called into the creative director’s office and informed that she would no longer be overseeing the additional photo departments. Plus, she would not receive the bonus. And, they would be cutting her annual salary by $10,000.

“My initial reaction was, They're doing this because I'm pregnant. It felt really bad. And it felt unjustified. I wasn’t doing a bad job. I just didn’t understand it.”

She immediately asked for everything in writing, because she knew that it was essential to have a paper trail. Alex was friendly with the company’s lawyer, after all the time they spent together negotiating photo contracts. She expressed her concern, and he said he would take care of it — in a very condescending, I’ve got this handled kind of way, Alex says. She was a little annoyed, but she needed support. The lawyer came back two hours later and told her: Nevermind, they were only going to take away the bonus, not dock her salary. It wasn’t much of a relief.

At that point, Alex only had a few months until her baby was due, and she didn’t have time to look for a new job. She also didn’t have the energy to continue fighting her employer.

“I had gestational diabetes at the time — it was incredibly taxing on my body going through that stress. Everyday life was really taxing. And I just didn’t think it was good for me or for the baby to continue to worry about it, so I let it go,” Alex says. She just focused on work until her maternity leave started in late spring.

“While I was out, I just decided that it wasn’t worth going back,” she says. “So I quit right before my leave was done.”
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Photography by Winnie Au; hair and makeup by Andi Yancey.
It wasn’t until that fall, four or five months after the birth of her child, that Alex considered taking legal action. “I felt like I finally had my brain back,” she says, but she wasn’t over how badly she was treated by her former employer. There was a feeling that she wanted to speak up, in hopes that maybe she could help protect the future of pregnant women who worked for that company. She talked with a lawyer, but since Alex had nothing in writing that out-and-out stated that she was demoted as a result of her pregnancy, the lawyer was concerned there wasn’t enough evidence to win. Alex wouldn’t have been alone if she had decided to sue: There were more than 5,342 pregnancy discrimination complaints filed to the EEOC in 2013, up significantly since 1997.

Alex isn’t bitter about what happened. Like so many of these women, she recognizes how a bad situation led her to a good one. She calls that awful job her “pregnancy gig,” since she was there for just 15 months. In the end, when she needed help, she found the women in her life were willing to lend a hand. While the whole experience left her hating men (not her husband, she says, but 99% of men), it made her more compassionate toward people in general — and mothers specifically.

“I think I have definitely softened, and I find myself really advocating for women who have children or women who are pregnant who need a job. If I'm looking for a freelancer, and I know that person is capable, I won’t not hire them because they’re pregnant. Like, who cares?” It’s frightening to think how common this story is — and that’s why it was so important for Alex to share it. She didn’t want to, at first. It makes her really nervous; after all, the industry she works in is small and male-dominated. But she realized that others could learn from her experiences and hopefully feel a little less alone.

“I do think that if sharing my story helps someone understand, ask for things in writing, be their own advocate — these are simple things, but I think people forget about them all the time and feel scared, which they absolutely should feel,” Alex explains. “But also, I want people to know that it's not okay, and it's fucked up,” she adds. “The more women like me who speak out and talk about our experiences, the more likely we can change the situation or inspire other women [and men] who have hiring/firing power to really consider what they're doing in the long run.”

*Alex’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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