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Thinx and the Risks of Feminist Marketing

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It was hard to read a women’s media site this past week without reading about Thinx, the period underwear company that, “promised a feminist utopia to everyone but its employees,” per the Racked headline that served as the inaugural domino tip. The target of all chatter? Founder/”She-E-O” Miki Agrawal.

Over the past 18 months, Thinx enjoyed much more flattering headlines. Like for being a woman-led company for women; for thinking globally and environmentally; for pushing the progressive envelope; for being trans-inclusive; for its quirky voice and culture; and for taking the fight to end period-shaming mainstream. It’s a lot to be proud of as far as company ethos goes, which makes this recent insider information all the more damning, surprising and viral-worthy. Scandals never seem to spread faster nor last longer than when a woman and her feminism are the target.

“[M]any current and former [Thinx] employees paint a picture of dysfunction and hypocrisy,” reported Racked, “with clashes between Agrawal and key members of her team, employment policies that seem to fly in the face of the company’s women-first messaging, and an increasingly volatile work environment that’s led many of those who were instrumental in creating the brand to tender their resignations.”

The takedown, which has now been covered by every major women’s media outlet I can think of, goes on to quote half a dozen anonymous Thinx employees, past and present, who found Agrawal’s behavior erratic, unfair and abusive. Other details, like costly healthcare, underpaid employees and toxic politics, also surfaced. Thinx’s former head of public relations, Chelsea Leibow, has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Agrawal. The avalanche of bad PR is being used as a cautionary tale for startups who fail to set up an HR department early on.

More than all that, this unstoppable media storm serves as another critical reminder: Feminism used as a marketing ploy is a dangerous business. For culture, for progress and for the companies that do it. Authenticity is an increasingly valuable commodity today and as a result, everyone’s eyes are sharp for hypocrisy and incongruity. And don’t forget: our memories are longer where the indiscretions of women are concerned.

To that end, it’s hard to deny women CEOs are held to a higher ethical standard than male ones. The documented but ultimately harmless-to-sales scandals of Snapchat’s Evan Spiegal, Whole Food’s Jon P. Mackey and Uber’s Travis Kalanick come to mind. That doesn’t make the details of the Thinx work environment any easier to stomach, but I wonder how many people saw their own male-led offices mirrored in the anecdotes? Did you?

Photo by Universal Images Group via Getty Images; collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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