Former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal's feminist vision is imploding — and we can't look away

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When Miki Agrawal launched Thinx in 2014, she had a feminist future in mind: one where menstruating individuals could take charge of their bodies, free from shame and stigma. The other part of that vision involved Agrawal herself, who would lead a majority-female company as its CEO in a world where, well, there still aren't very many female CEOs.

One would only assume such a workplace would be friendly to women — that it would support working mothers, be free from sexual harassment and be sensitive to other gender issues. But according to a series of in-depth reports, Agrawal's company allegedly failed to uphold the feminist ideals upon which the company was built.

On March 14, Racked published an expose on the company's paltry parental leave policy, dubious human resource practices, poor management and overall toxic culture that left many employees disillusioned by Thinx's supposed feminist ethos.

Later that day, transgender and agender model Tyler Ford unleashed a tweetstorm recounting their deeply upsetting experience working with the brand, which included being asked to read from a script with transphobic language. 

And if all that weren't worrisome enough, on Monday, the Cut reported that a complaint was filed by a former Thinx employee who alleged — among other things — that Agrawal touched an employee's breasts, asked her to expose them and shared nude photos of "herself and others."

It's increasingly clear the company Agrawal built is something of a feminist house of cards. No matter the product's potential to do good, the Thinx brand is now overshadowed by disturbing and decidedly un-feminist allegations, which ultimately raise questions about whether there's room for feminism in capitalist ventures at all. 

Agrawal attended Glamour and L'Oreal Paris' 2016 College Women of the Year event.Source: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
Agrawal attended Glamour and L'Oreal Paris' 2016 College Women of the Year event.  Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Externally at least, Thinx remains a feminist company, both in its message and its product. 

It was exciting when a woman swooped in to disrupt both the tech startup community and a $15 billion industry with a product that was simply "for people with periods." Thinx's cheeky ads spoke directly to its demographic with suggestive imagery like splayed grapefruits and egg yolks. (Too suggestive, Mic learned in October 2015, for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose officials initially banned the ads from appearing on the New York City subway.) The underwear itself was mostly well-received and seemed to genuinely make life easier for menstruating people.

But even the best feminist intentions couldn't make up for what Thinx was sorely lacking, most notably an HR department, which Agrawal said she neglected to establish because she'd been busy with press and business travel. 

"All of a sudden, health insurance, vacation days, benefits and maternity leave were brought up," she wrote in a Medium post on Friday. Even so, it seems Agrawal may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, falsely believing that "disrupting" a business model meant scrapping all standard business practices along with it indiscriminately. 

Many of these standards, though, help to guarantee a more equitable — dare we say, more feminist — workplace, one where employee benefits are spelled out and, if a boss crosses a line, there's someone to talk to.

In the absence of these business practices, Agrawal ended up building a company that was excellent for customers and miserable for employees.

A model wears Thinx "sport" underwearSource: SheThinx.com
A model wears Thinx "sport" underwear  SheThinx.com

Many people certainly felt sympathy for these employees. However, the Thinx fallout has also been met with a certain schadenfreude, as some seemed to find a perverse pleasure in seeing a company with such an explicit feminist mission fall so woefully short of realizing it.

A number of people compared Agrawal to male CEOs who've had similar charges brought against them. Most timely have been comparisons to the sexism and sexual harassment plaguing Uber, culminating in the resignation of former Uber president Jeff Jones on Monday. 

Sharing two side-by-side excerpts — one from the Cut's report on Agrawal and the other from a first-person account of Uber's work environment — Politico reporter Peter Sterne asked Twitter users, "Can you tell which of these anecdotes is about Uber and which is about the proudly 'feminist' company Thinx?"

Bitch Media cofounder Andi Zeisler, meanwhile, went so far as to call Agrawal "the female Dov Charney," the former CEO of American Apparel who was dismissed in 2014 following a string of sexual harassment suits.  

The revelations about Thinx seem to confirm our worst suspicions about the outlook for "feminist" companies. Even worse, the allegations against Agrawal and her management practices leave us wondering what a feminist workplace looks like or if the phrase itself is an oxymoron.

If anything, Agrawal has demonstrated what a feminist workplace is not.

In loosening boundaries, Agrawal seemed to be trying to do away with traditional notions of professionalism, which have always been patriarchal and limiting to anyone who isn't a straight white man. But in doing so, she allegedly breached her employees' emotional and physical boundaries. Agrawal didn't smash the patriarchy — she pieced it back together. 

It would be easier to say Agrawal was never really a feminist, to say her feminism was a sham right from the start. Then we could chalk up the issues at Thinx to Agrawal's personal failings, rather than the result of an unhappy marriage between capitalism and feminism. (Of course, in all likelihood, it's both.) 

Instead, the allegations against Agrawal and the apparent anti-feminist state of Thinx will leave us to continue pressing on a bruise. We can no longer think of Thinx as a feminist workplace — but we can't name many others, either.