Where were you the first time you noticed diet tips were no longer a mainstay in women’s media? What about when they started featuring fat women? Queer women? Indigenous women? Black women, and not just as tokenism? I don’t remember where I was, because there wasn’t really a single moment. All I know is that over the course of the 2010s, magazines and blogs suddenly started to seem more diverse, more representational, more like real life. Or at the very least, it seemed like they were trying.
In modernizing its content, however, women’s media often failed to extend the same progressive values to its own employees. Even when publications have tried to hire diverse staff members to create more inclusive content, those workers have been boxed out. Traditional feminist advice, like speaking up about workplace discrimination and attempting to “lean in” and climb the corporate ladder, hasn’t seemed to apply when the employee is black.
What’s happening in women’s media right now, along with so many other industries, is a racial reckoning. Over the past week, publications like Refinery29, Man Repeller, Who What Wear, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue have published articles like “Anti-Racist Actions You Can Take Today” and “A List of Resources for Supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Behind the social justice articles and allyship guides, however, employees have shared stories that recall the far less progressive earlier days of women’s magazines, the ones that were supposed to have fallen out of trend years ago.
Refinery29 may have started in 2005 as a fashion and beauty blog founded by two white men, but after heeding early audience feedback, its coverage began to prioritize diversity and a broader range of content topics. It launched sub-brands like Unbothered for black women, and Somos for Latinx women, and in 2016 committed to using larger models in its stock photos to represent the 67 percent of American women who wear a size 14 and up. Refinery considered itself a champion of feminist causes, but it also considered itself cool — headlines, often grabbed from trending online topics, were wrapped in a site aesthetic that was simultaneously cute and edgy, appealing to millennial women.
When the police killing of George Floyd set off weeks of protests around the world, it was on-brand for Refinery29 to be among the many companies posting Black Lives Matter content on its Instagram page. But by then, the company’s black employees had had enough.
“Hey @Refinery29, cool blacked out homepage!” tweeted Ashley Alese Edwards, a former employee who now works at the Google News Lab, on June 2. “But you know what real allyship looks like? Paying your Black employees fairly, having Black women in top leadership positions & addressing the microaggressions your Black employees deal with from management on a daily basis.”
Within a day, other former employees began replying to the tweet with their own stories — that an executive had mistaken a black employee for a caterer, that editor-in-chief Christene Barberich cried in a meeting because someone had said she was “squeamish” about race, that a white talent director spoke down to a black intern in a meeting full of white women, and that there was a rumor that the same man had thrown a stapler at another black female employee. The chain quickly evolved into a hashtag, #BlackAtR29, which acted as a hub for the dozens of stories about Refinery’s toxic company culture. There’s now a Twitter account devoted to compiling them.
Khalea Underwood tweeted her own story on June 5. She’d been hired as a beauty writer focusing on natural hair in 2017, excited to be writing content for and about black women. But with the role came tokenization, an inability to branch out of her job title, and being bogged down by “redundant roundups and faux-outraged hot takes.” She described a cliquey culture, where editors would publicly criticize writers’ work, and she was stonewalled when she expressed a desire to move to a senior role. The stress led to anxiety attacks for the first time in her life.
“Refinery, to me, was always a dream job,” she tells Vox. “I was ready to be able to create content that I could relate to, that my friends and family could relate to. It’s a space that was and is largely ignored by women’s media. I’m a black woman who went to Howard University, so elevating the voices of black women, making sure that black women are seen, is something that is always important to me, and I figured that Refinery would be a great way to do that.”
But the gossip and cattiness — flying in the face of R29’s image as a progressive, feminist brand — made it difficult to do good work. “I always felt paranoid about people talking about me. Sometimes I would look next to me and see one senior editor talking about the way people wrote, and just being mean. There was definitely favoritism, and I think that just caused even more of a sense of competitiveness among us. I became really reclusive. I’m already a shy person to begin with, but it made me not want to speak at all out of fear of being judged. That’s no way to live.”
Channing Hargrove, a fashion news editor at Refinery29 from July 2017 to January 2020, was excited to work at the company for similar reasons. [Disclosure: Hargrove was also my coworker at Racked, a now-shuttered Vox Media site with a predominantly female audience.] “I saw the promise that they dangle in front of you,” she says of Refinery’s ethos. “But I also realized that that is only available to people who are palatable in both appearance and opinion. That didn’t become evidently clear to me until I began to have success with things that didn’t necessarily resonate with management.”
One particular instance put the dynamic in obvious relief. In February 2019, Hargrove wrote a viral article about white women suddenly deciding that gold jewelry was chic, with the context that historically, fashionable white women had considered yellow gold “ghetto.” But when Barberich, the editor-in-chief, received an email from a white woman who was upset about the article because “Italian women have worn gold chains for years,” she was “adamant” that Hargrove write an apology. It was ultimately decided that an apology was unnecessary, but Hargrove said the situation seriously affected her relationship with both management and the editor-in-chief going forward.
Hargrove knew that favoritism played a big role at Refinery, too. At one point, a manager told her to start complimenting Barberich when she arrived in the mornings, “because she has all these issues with you and it really comes down to the fact that she thinks you don’t like her.” During meetings, Hargrove says that Barberich would frequently cry, claiming that Refinery was for women to claim their power. “I was like, ‘I understand that, Christene, but I’m sitting here telling you that I don’t feel that way,’” Hargrove says.
An article she’d read about black women in mostly white workplaces seemed to describe her situation perfectly: In January, Zora magazine had published a piece called “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat,” detailing how so often, black women are beloved by their bosses, but as soon as they offer a new perspective or challenge the existing order — which is what so many white managers say they want when they hire black women — the relationship sours, and they become a threat.
Hargrove was not the only person to bring up the article in interviews for this story. A similar reckoning was brewing at another cool fashion media brand for millennial women. At Man Repeller, founder Leandra Medine, a wealthy fashion influencer who’d turned her blog into a major media company in her early 20s, recently published an open letter on its site expressing allyship with the protesters. Immediately, the comments were filled with readers and former employees lambasting its tone deafness.
Commenters also asked what happened with multiple staffers of color who had been fired shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit the US. “I LOVED Crystal [Anderson],” wrote one, echoing the sentiments of several others. In response, Medine published an apology, writing that “The letter I published on Monday provided an insufficient explanation for how I plan to change the way Man Repeller operates, but I did not adequately address the way that it already has operated.”
“As a former POC employee that was let go during COVID-19, this ‘apology’ is a slap in the face and honestly disgraceful,” wrote former employee Sabrina Santiago. “I have not been reached out to in any capacity. I hope everyone sees that this is another performative attempt to cover racist actions.”
A former staffer of color at Man Repeller, who asked to remain anonymous because she signed a nondisclosure agreement, confirmed that there was a culture of favoritism and cliquishness at the company. Over the last few months of her tenure, she says that Medine completely ignored her. “The other employees would see me crying and be like, ‘What’s happening? What’s wrong?’ And I would tell them what was wrong and I was met with, ‘Oh my god, that is so shitty, I’m so sorry,’ and they’d do nothing about it,” she says. “All of it was really shitty.”
In an email to Vox, Medine wrote, “We have a lot of work to do to build a better, more inclusive culture. We have been taking the feedback from our current and former employees very seriously.” She also said that Man Repeller would be hiring to fill the “important gaps” in the coming months, and shortly afterward announced on Instagram that she would “step back” from the company.
Another revolt in the comments section occurred when the fashion and beauty site Who What Wear posted an Instagram about new initiatives to dedicate more content to black creatives and brands. Many former employees commented on the site’s historic dearth of black people on the masthead, and a company culture that blamed its lack of diversity on not enough applicants of color. “Remember the company-wide summit when I asked about internal diversity and diversity in our content in 2017?” read one. “1. I got a half-assed response about not enough POC applying. 2. Too little progress has been made since then, and from what I’ve seen and personally experienced, WWW makes zero effort to retain Black women as employees. And the ones who do stay don’t get promoted at the rate that legions of white women do.”
A former copy editor at Who What Wear who asked not to be named wrote in an email to Vox, “I even literally heard things [in the office] like, ‘Ugh, I have to add diversity to my story’ when we would push back on something like a French-girl roundup that featured 20+ skinny white women and zero people of color. Or wedding roundups that only included straight couples. Or trend stories that didn’t feature a single plus-size woman or item of clothing. The list goes on.”
None of this should be particularly shocking or new for anyone who has experienced or seen the way black women are treated in many workplaces. But the baldness of the wide-scale support of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the killing of George Floyd from brands, influencers, and celebrities was a breaking point for people who have witnessed the hypocrisy firsthand. It is happening everywhere: Customers and employees are calling out ostensibly progressive brands like L’Oréal, Reformation, or the women’s social club The Wing, celebrities like Lea Michele, publications like Bon Appétit, Vogue, and the New York Times.
The difference, though, is that this time, they’re actually being listened to. On June 8, less than a week after the first #BlackAtR29 post, Christene Barberich announced that she would resign. “We have to do better,” she wrote, along with the news that the company was beginning its search for a new global editor-in-chief, as well as an open letter of apology from the founders. Leandra Medine said that she will “step back” from Man Repeller. Condé Nast announced that in light of Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport’s resignation, it would conduct “internal studies” about diversity and pay equity (despite CEO Roger Lynch blaming his own employees for the company’s diversity issues). Anna Wintour, longtime Vogue editor-in-chief, apologized in an internal email and said that she takes full responsibility for race-related “mistakes” during her tenure.
Emboldened by their black colleagues, non-black POC journalists are also sharing their experiences in media. Prachi Gupta was hired as a politics reporter for Cosmopolitan in 2015, when traditional women’s magazines were tackling harder news. “It felt pretty significant to be a brown woman and able to have a platform like that to write about feminist issues,” she says.
Cosmo sold her on a position that would involve high-profile interviews and the ability to act as the face of the magazine’s politics coverage. But when Gupta did publish headline-making news, like a particularly strong interview with Ivanka Trump, she was told she had to deny all requests to discuss her work on TV channels like CNN and MSNBC. When she asked why, “it was seen as pushing back and being subordinate.”
She never got an answer, though she suspects it was due to fear of alienating readers and advertisers. “It seemed like they didn’t want to go fully in on their political coverage, on actually talking about Donald Trump,” she says. “Associating the Cosmo brand with values that are explicitly anti-white supremacy seemed to be too controversial.” Meanwhile, writers at other women’s media sites, like Lauren Duca at Teen Vogue, saw their careers explode after appearances on cable news during the 2016 election.
In a now-viral Twitter thread, Gupta described a meeting with a top editor at Cosmopolitan.com, where she was told she had a bad attitude and that she should feel “grateful” to work there. “It went beyond unprofessional,” she says. “Honestly, it was one of the most humiliating experiences of my professional career and I knew at that moment that there was no room for me, so I left shortly after.”
Experiences like these are partially to blame for the media’s lack of diversity — in 2018, women of color represented less than 8 percent of US print newsroom staff — and they are also why coming forward with these stories is so risky.
“As a person of color in historically white institutions, I think we are supposed to exhibit gratitude and feel grateful for these jobs that are usually occupied by white people,” Gupta says. “That’s why I’m calling it out, because in this moment, pointing out that behavior is going to be what makes a workplace more equitable, and make it a place for Black journalists and other journalists of color to actually do the work that we want to do, to thrive in these places, and actually stay there and rise through the ranks.”
High-profile editor-in-chief resignations are a start. But the cultures they have helped create will continue to linger without real structural change, regardless of the wokeness of their content.
“There’s always going to be hesitation when you tell a story like that because you fear being blackballed,” Underwood adds. “I was nervous about the story not being received in the right way, with people thinking that I might have just been complaining or spiteful. But I thought that it was more important to stand with my former colleagues because our stories are important. They’re valid. Our voices are valid.”