By MIYA TOKUMITSU MARCH 23, 2017
“Integrating feminism into our marketing is not a ploy, and it’s not exploitative; it’s a reclamation of how brands treat and speak to women,” proclaimed Miki Agrawal, a founder of Thinx, in a Medium post last year.
But last week, Thinx, the “period-proof” underwear and feminine hygiene company based in New York, entered the growing canon of employers that have been accused of failing to live up to their socially conscious branding. Former Thinx employees, many of them women in their 20s and 30s, allege some very un-feminist practices, including substandard pay, verbal abuse and sexual harassment. Thinx has denied the harassment allegations, made by a former employee in a legal complaint, and says other allegations about the company’s culture are inaccurate. Still, the story of Thinx has broader implications for all workers.
Some former employees saw their experiences at Thinx as personal betrayals, given the company’s ethos of female empowerment, Racked reported. The initial maternity leave policy — just two weeks at full pay plus one week at half — seemed unconscionably meager for a company promoting its feminist, body-positive bona fides. Worse, Ms. Agrawal has been accused by a former employee of unwanted physical contact, which, if true, would constitute a violation of everything the company stands for.
Ms. Agrawal founded Thinx with her twin sister, Radha, and Antonia Saint Dunbar in 2011. Through savvy marketing, Thinx linked its principal product, absorbent underwear, with a mission to break social taboos about menstruation. To that end, Thinx sells T-shirts emblazoned “Real Menstruating Human” and has created charitable partnerships and initiatives aimed at providing hygiene products and education to girls in the developing world.
But if complaints by several former employees are true, Ms. Agrawal’s treatment of her workers was at odds with these benevolent aims. In a formal complaint and in an interview in New York magazine, an employee named Chelsea Leibow claims Ms. Agrawal discussed and touched Ms. Leibow’s breasts in front of colleagues, exposed her own body to others at the office and demanded details about her subordinates’ sexual proclivities. Ms. Agrawal has denied all allegations of sexual misconduct.
Ms. Leibow’s complaint also claims that the only two employees who negotiated higher salaries at Thinx were men. Thinx fired Ms. Leibow in December, after, Ms. Leibow claims, she had complained numerous times about Ms. Agrawal’s behavior. According to Racked, 10 of the company’s 35 employees have left since January. Thinx disputes this number but did not clarify.
Thinx’s story has significance beyond the allegations against a single executive. It exposes the logical limitations of a common narrative about employment and profit in our market-driven society: that profit-seeking can be compatible with social justice.
It appears that some of Thinx’s workers tolerated what they saw as the low pay and high demands of their jobs because they believed that the company was dedicated to a just cause. Even after leaving the company, several said they wanted Thinx to succeed. Their belief in the company’s public feminist message helped them to tolerate, at least for a time, what they felt were disrespectful treatment and unfair remuneration.
The popular myth that profit and social justice can go hand in hand underlies every would-be ethical business venture. It’s a seductive prospect: Who doesn’t want to prosper while making the world a better place? The problem is that the market makes entrepreneurs choose between maximizing profit and transferring to workers the full returns of their productivity. All employers are forced into this choice, no matter how socially progressive.
If Ms. Agrawal had paid her staff higher salaries, or had taken the more radically feminist step of making Thinx’s majority-female staff cooperative owners, she might have lost business to more ruthless competitors. Instead, she was able to pay her staff what she did because of a socially entrenched gender wage gap, a weak job market for young workers and her employees’ willingness to work long hours and sacrifice pay for a cause.
An employer who claims not to be the least tempted to exploit these conditions is probably deluding herself. The progressive entrepreneur faces other quandaries as well. If, for instance, she wishes to donate some profits to charity out of a mixture of branding and social justice concerns, that money will be taken from the same pool of funds from which her employees are paid.
In her book “The New Prophets of Capital,” Nicole Aschoff writes sympathetically about the stories we spin not only to make sense of the world, but also to help ourselves bear its indignities. To uphold a profit-driven society willingly, workers must believe, in the face of contrary evidence, that such a society “is worth their creativity, energy and passion” and that it “meets their need for justice and security.”
That belief seems to have been a part of the culture of Thinx — and if allegations against Ms. Agrawal are true, it eventually crashed into reality.
Miya Tokumitsu, a lecturer in art history at the University of Melbourne, is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine and the author of “Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness.”