It’s become incredibly hard to think of an industry that hasn’t been “disrupted” by shiny, new direct-to-consumer brands — so hard that we can barely even utter the d-word with a straight face anymore. From makeup and mattresses to wine, cookware, dentistry, and even hospital scrubs, the common denominators for these new brands include adopting a millennial-friendly pastel-tinged, minimalism-adjacent design aesthetic, an abundance of Instagram ads, and a promotion of a workplace culture that prioritizes employee-perks like free snacks and flexible hours. This (admittedly oversimplified) formula has made many of these companies into household names, legitimately upending entire retail categories. Their success proves that taking risks, having a vision, and doing things differently pays off. So why are so many of these companies suddenly up against accusations of toxic, abusive workplace culture? And what does it mean that so many of them have young, female founders?
Most recently, Outdoor Voices, the trendy athleisure brand known for its tri-colour leggings and “exercise dresses,” was the subject of a Buzzfeed News report that levels charges from employees who say there is a rampant culture of favouritism, gaslighting, fear, and distrust, caused in no small part by founder and former CEO Tyler Haney, who left her post at the company in February. (Haney declined a request to comment for this story.)
“[Haney] spoke to me like I was in an abusive relationship,” an anonymous former employee told Buzzfeed News. “Each day I walked into that office I felt more and more worthless. She had beaten me down, like she had done to many others.” For her part, Haneywrote on Instagram, “There is an unsettling trend lately to interview ex-employees of female-founded companies and report their claims either at face value or without any context.” (According to Buzzfeed, writer Brianna Sacks spoke with over 20 current and former employees and viewed Slack messages, documents, emails, and texts that legitimate their claims.)
Indeed, in December, The Verge published a similar expose about suitcase company Away, leveling accusations that co-founder Stephanie Korey bullied workers via Slack, forced them to work long hours, and, on at least one occasion, referred to her employees as “millennial twats.” In 2017, Miki Agrawal, founder of period underwear company Thinx, was accused in a report by The Cut of sexually harassing and fat-shaming employees and creating a culture of embarrassment. While these might seem like disparate tales of a few mismanaged companies, remember that for every one of these stories that is published, scores of instances of workplace abuse go unreported.
It isn’t necessarily surprising that these things may have happened — research estimates that 75% of people have been bullied at work — but what’s shocking is that they’re alleged to have occurred at companies predicated on doing things differently. In addition to creating an entire class of products with better design and lower prices than have ever existed previously, millennial-run start-ups have allegedly led the charge in revolutionizing workplace culture. In traditional workplaces, millennials have pushed companies to allow for remote work and flexible hours, to have comprehensive maternity and paternity leave policies, to prioritize diversity, and to crack down on sexual assault and harassment. So it would seem to follow that at millennial-led brands, workplace equality would be implicit, as matter of course as Summer Fridays and kombucha on tap. Yet what’s become clear with the scandals surrounding all these start-ups is that many of the companies and founders who were thought to be changing things are actually guilty of perpetuating them, and this feels especially surprising when a brand promoted a feminist outlook and had a female founder.
“Brands like Away and Outdoor Voices are always being marketed as aspirational, and people have ungrounded expectations about who you need to be as a female founder — female founders have to be really in touch with their culture, female founders have to be strong and dominant, but also kind and respectful, too. It makes it so much more wild, from the public's perspective, that founders of these brands are anything less than perfect,” says Amy Buechler, a founder coach. “In that way, their branding actually works against them.”
The idea that start-up culture — with its long hours, tight quarters, and fixation on the “work hard-play hard” mentality — might be a breeding ground for toxic personalities isn’t exactly new, but a lot of the toxicity was credited to “tech-bro” culture. It’s possible, then, that the focus on female founders is simply because of the unmet expectation that women would be “nicer” than male founders, but it’s also possible that it’s just a sexist glee over the fall of women who couldn’t live up to society’s ultra-high standards. Winnie app founder Sarah Maukopf wrote on TechCrunch in December: “Articles often highlight when female CEOs curse, yell and show anger or bawdiness, because the shock value is higher than when male CEOs demonstrate these behaviours. We ask women leaders not only to be successful, but also to be ladylike and likable. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been criticized for not being warm and friendly enough, or saying things that were too blunt.”
This public desire for women executives to be perfect has not gone unnoticed by other women execs. “I am soooo done with the takedown of the visionary female founder story. Next! Let’s try to understand the context behind the story and cover the positive alongside the critique,” tweeted Rent The Runway founder Jenn Hyman. Business Insider reports that fellow female start-up founders like Glossier’s Emily Weiss, The Wing’s Audrey Gelman, and Away’s remaining co-founder Jen Rubio have rallied around Haney, leaving supportive messages on her Instagram. Gelman also recently penned a story for Fast Company outlining some of the times she has gotten it wrong as a leader, perhaps attempting to preemptively address potential criticisms, like that the company has a diversity problem.
Of course, it’s not just female founders who have been accused of workplace misconduct. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was accused of sexual misconduct and cultivating a sexist “bro” culture at the company. WeWork's Adam Neumann has been accused of pushing employees to their breaking point, and, according to Vanity Fair, acting less like a CEO and more like a cult leader. But of the 134 US-based “unicorn” companies, just 14 have a woman as a founder, co-founder, or CEO. (Among them are Glossier, Rent The Runway, 23AndMe, and Houzz.) There’s an understandable desire to protect these women. We want to cultivate female leadership and inspire young women to pursue business, a world that’s still largely dominated by middle-aged white men.
Female leaders are still perceived differently — both within and outside of the companies they helm — than their male counterparts might be. A 2019 study from University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, created fictional news articles about a fictional company, randomly changing the CEO’s name from “Adam” to “Abigail” in half of them. The gender of this fictional CEO made a significant difference in how respondents reacted to the articles.
“Our study found that consumers’ trust in, and willingness to support, an organization after a failure varied based on the gender of the organization’s leader and the nature of the failure,” researcher Nicole Votolato Montgomery said in a press release. “Women incur greater penalties for ethical transgressions because of persistent gender stereotypes that tend to categorize women as having more communal traits than men, such as being more likable, sensitive, and supportive of others. Even in leadership settings, women are still expected to be more communal than their male counterparts.”
And yet, dismay at hearing that CEOs threaten and bully their employees isn’t a gender issue — it’s more about the realization that these ostensibly mission-driven companies are nowhere near as progressive as they pretend to be. Part of the reason people buy Away suitcases and Outdoor Voices leggings is because they like the ethos of those brands. These consumers want to support something different and revolutionary — in as much as consumer goods can be those things.
As long as we’re still participating in consumer culture, though, it’s important to strive toward a goal of gender equality in the workplace. We still have a long way to go toward achieving that, and so seeing otherwise inspiring female founders called out isn’t great for optics or morale. But we also need to protect workers — the ones who don’t have money, fame, and an army of Instagram followers on their side. If female-helmed start-ups want to ensure they don’t get dragged in the press, how about making sure things are as rosy on the inside of their companies as they project them to be on the outside?
Of course, nobody sets out to create a toxic company culture, and often, there isn’t an easy Band-Aid one can apply to eradicate one, either. “It’s hard for people to understand how difficult it is to be a founder, and also how… people are complicated,” offers Buechler. “I am 100 percent confident that each of these female founders do have a component of their psychologies that are absolutely congruent with that aspirational vision they’re putting forward. And who do we know that is ‘all that’? People also have a shadow side, people struggle to have appropriate boundaries, or to manage their anger, or frustration, or stress. We expect people, especially women, to be these visionary leaders while forgetting their humanity.”
Two years after the MeToo movement, it seems we’re finally ready to have a reckoning about abusive behaviour in the workplace that isn’t of a sexual nature. It’s bound to be difficult to call out someone who is abusing their power in a more insidious way, whose “shadow side” is tinted millennial pink. But we still have to do it, even when we’d rather not, even when we love their leggings and follow the founder on social media. Otherwise, all the progress we’ve made is going to seem as dated as buying a rose-gold suitcase.