“Don’t go to HR.”
A senior editor of the magazine where I was interning told me this over many glasses of house white wine at a subterranean bar. I was 19 and didn’t have a fake ID, but she told me not to worry — she knew the bartender. Taking out a lowly peon like myself felt like a very decent thing for an editor to do, so I drunkenly told her all about my wide-eyed ambitions: have a long career in media championing young women, become an editor-in-chief one day, maybe start my own magazine? And she told me how to get there: Always say yes, especially to assignments you don’t feel prepared to take on. Find male mentors, because successful women are insecure and will sabotage you. Arrive at the office before your boss gets there and don’t go home until they leave. The only way to get a raise is to quit and come back later.
And, finally: Never go to HR, especially for serious issues. Leave. Brush it off. Let their mistreatment of you fuel your rage. Work hard to climb the ladder, so you eventually get your own chance to derail your tormentors in the future.
It was the first time that I realised there was a set of unspoken rules within media. I was grateful to her for this education, though, at the time, I didn’t realise she’d offered to help me as a way to help herself. During happy hour drinks later that summer, she’d ask random men at bars which one of us they’d rather fuck — “She’s a BABY, you creep!” she’d cackle as I’d shrink — knowing I wouldn’t tell a soul. Still, though, she was right, I assured myself. She should not be a mentor, and I should never go to HR. Knowing these things, and enduring these horrible experiences with her made me feel tougher, savvier, and more worthy of competitive workplaces. I felt lucky to be learning this lesson early.
Like many other older millennials who graduated during the recession of ’08, who came from families with neither connections nor trust funds, and who did not look like the cast of The Hills, I was just happy to be there. I might have only been paid $12 (£10) a day (subway fare, plus lunch they said) to intern at the glossy magazine during the daytime, so I could split a $2 falafel with a roommate at night, in an apartment in which six girls slept in two bedrooms — but I was glad for the opportunity. At one magazine internship, I was assigned to catfish powerful people in media so I could collect gossip for posts, but, instead of dwelling on how their lackeys harassed me in comments and tweets, I was just thrilled to be learning how to report under pressure. I might have been groped by senior leadership, had my first drafts passed around the newsroom for ridicule, and watched as my co-interns developed gruesome eating disorders and drug habits from the pressure to fit in, but I figured these hardships were part of the job. I was so grateful to be there — for the chance, the experience, the education.
We — older millennials in media who I call the Grateful Generation — saw as national protests against the World Trade Organisation, Wall Street, and the Iraq War flared up and then flamed out, making leftist collective action seem like a historical magic trick and not a reliable modern tool for change. The 9-5 and Working Girl of our era was The Devil Wears Prada, which taught us that the best way to deal with a bad boss and a toxic workplace is to quit. But, if quitting wasn't an option — either because we cared too much about our careers or lacked the funds to just stop working — we were supposed to find ways to exist within the broken system, by heeding the unspoken rules, watching our own backs, and privately fixing things when they went wrong. Along the way, many of us did more than just survive a bad situation. We learned how to thrive within these environments, becoming devils ourselves. We, the Grateful Generation, owe you younger people in the room an apology.
In the days since the police killing of George Floyd, a movement has been spreading throughout newsrooms and workplaces, including at Refinery29. Corporations from L’Oréal to Amazon opened the door to criticism by aligning themselves with Black lives, when Black employees’ own experiences said something very different about these corporations’ cultures. Across the business world, the massive delta between external words and internal actions became too hypocritical to bear. For many in the workforce, especially those who entered it recently, there is not enough to be grateful for when surrounded by so much systemic inequality — and at every level. What’s the use in operating professionally, privately, and discreetly, when the next rung on the corporate ladder was bound to be just as undignifying, just more of the same?
The Grateful Generation espoused the worst parts of modern careerism with recession-bred shell shock, seeking to climb ladders and win favours in desperate search for financial security. We read websites dedicated solely to secret job listings (archived pages from ED2010 — a website that posted jobs from whisper networks — showed that a large percentage of these writing jobs from the time were “volunteer” positions: writers would not receive financial compensation, but would receive “plenty of perks and exposure”). On blogs, we lionised “super interns” like Tess Brokaw or Emily Weiss. We “networked” without embarrassment: I distinctly remember attending an ED2010 mixer wearing an outfit I had copied from the pages of The Teen Vogue Handbook: An Insider’s Guide to Careers in Fashion, and listening with dread as hundreds of other women all talked about applying to the the same unpaid internship posting. If you had asked us, we all wanted the experience so badly and would have done anything to get it. But if you had pushed, I’m not certain any of us could tell you why.
In our search for a salary and some respect, many of us lost sight of the purpose of having a job in journalism: to tell the truth to a public that trusts us to do so.
One of the distinct privileges of working in women’s media is that I am constantly surrounded by young women with the same kind of wide-eyed ambition I once had. But they want something else: to make people feel like they belong, to inspire others with confidence, to speak truth to power, and to shine a light on injustice in every form. No wonder that, shaken by these women’s hands, the media industry has undergone two reckonings in two years, with #MeToo and #BLM. These women have demanded answers and solutions to the misogynistic and anti-Black environments that have felt as inextricable from this industry as its reliance on ad revenue and exclusivity.
In particular, Black women at workplaces like The New York Times, Conde Nast, and Refinery29 are sparking changes that will benefit everyone. Let’s keep in mind that the things being asked for are simple dignities: a decent and equitable wage for work, a properly functioning HR, and the space to do their jobs without fear of being harassed. If achieved, it’ll be because Black women, WOC, and their allies have ignored these unspoken rules to take care of things in public as well as behind closed doors. The least institutionally empowered among us will have uplifted everyone.
The gratitude I feel about those who risk retaliation and lost future work knocks me off my feet. In my career, I have mostly felt at the mercy of systems larger than myself. The antidote to that small feeling is linking arms with Black women. It gives me the confidence that we are more powerful than any institution.
Late last year, I was asked to give an interview to The New Yorker about why Refinery29 formed a union. Steven Greenhouse, the legendary labor reporter on the project, asked me whether I thought there was a generational divide among organisers. I knew he wanted me to talk about how foreign the Jimmy Hoffa era of organising seems to young people today, but I wanted to express to him what I saw as the more salient difference that affects workplaces far beyond just media. The younger generation, I told him, sees problems as networks — the ways in which our culture is tied to our economy which is tied to geopolitical forces, the environment, and random circumstance. When they see a problem, they are more likely to question the entire system. My generation had recognised the same problems, but our solutions relied on navigating these issues in isolation: Want a raise? Get another job offer. Want healthcare? Find work at a bigger company.
This is the first time that I’ve been part of a team that is finally, thankfully, made up of women who don’t see things the way my generation did. But now I don’t see things that way, either. And for that, I am truly grateful.