Last year, I wrote an in-depth story called “Bleeding on the Job” about how periods affect women at work. While many women work hard to make it seem like their menstrual cycles are no big deal in the workplace–after all, there is enough stacked against them when they compare themselves to their male colleagues–getting your period unexpectedly or getting a particularly heavy or painful period can be a burden. I also explored companies that were working to make menstruating at work easier.
I spoke to Thinx founder and CEO Miki Agrawal extensively for that story. At one point, I asked Agrawal for her thoughts about menstrual leave, which had been hotly debated that summer. She told me that she hadn’t instituted a policy in which women at her office could take time off because of a painful period and that menstruation should not be allowed to interfere with productivity. “Taking time off, I’d say, at what point do you stop?” she said. “Women go through their cycle every single month. We are not going to be, like, you can work from home whenever. We are a company, we are building a business.”
At the time, it struck me as odd that Agrawal and Thinx weren’t taking a stand on the issue, given the the brand has aligned itself with a wide range of feminist causes, and that their product was designed to make women’s periods more manageable.
Menstrual leave is complicated and companies with feminist values might choose not to offer it for ideological reasons. But Agrawal didn’t seem to have an angle on the topic at all and seemed to dismiss it far too easily. Looking back, this might have been a signal that Thinx didn’t have a strong set of employee policies in place.
But ultimately, I felt that Thinx had contributed positively to women’s experiences in the workplace. Agrawal’s company has produced a stellar product: underwear that looks and feels normal, but that effectively absorbs blood and is antimicrobial. While Thinx wasn’t the first brand to do this, it was the first to effectively market the product using the language of empowerment. It encouraged women to confront the taboo head on, to weaken its power.
Over the last week, several former Thinx employees have come out to discuss the dysfunctional working conditions at the company: poor pay, expensive insurance packages, vacation days that were unexpectedly cut. More disturbingly, Agrawal has been described as aggressive, vindictive, and sexually inappropriate. Agrawal disputes all of these claims, but during my interview with her, she did hint at some behavior that might have made her staff uncomfortable, such as taking calls while on the toilet and announcing in the office when she was ovulating.
But despite these problems, employees still felt supportive of the company’s mission and disappointed that the workplace conditions didn’t live up to the brand’s purported feminist mission.
As a reporter who has covered the company extensively over the past year, I feel a similar sense of ambivalence. There is no doubt that Thinx made important headway when it came to making customers’ lives better and moving the conversation about feminism forward. But I’m also horrified and disappointed to hear about these allegations from women who worked at the Thinx, helping to craft these products and marketing campaigns.
This is a far too common feeling for business reporters. We spend our days learning about companies and products, assessing how innovative they are or how they improve consumers’ lives. And then, time after time, stories about workplace problems or poor leadership come to light. In the midst of the crisis, we must balance the good of the company’s mission against the failings of a flawed leader. We ask ourselves whether it is possible for a poorly run company–full of unhappy employees–to still make great products. Ultimately, I think the answer is yes, at least for a time.