When the #metoo movement gained steam, nearly every one of my female friends had an experience to share. I was able to relate even though I didn’t have my own #metoo story. After twelve years in the fashion industry, I suffered emotional abuse from toxic female bosses. Lots of them.
My first job in New York was at Bergdorf Goodman, where I was an assistant to a legendary stylist and personal shopper. Let’s call her “Judith.” Judith had a sharp rolodex and an even sharper tongue. Well into her 70s at the time, she kept New York’s uber-wealthy looking their best for the society pages. Working for Judith after I graduated from college was supposed to be a foot in the door to a career in fashion design. The job allowed me to move to New York from Detroit. In hindsight, even my interview was a red flag. I thought I was going for an informational chat, but another assistant was unceremoniously fired that morning. I was hired on the spot to be the newest of Judith’s two minions.
Almost immediately it was clear the other assistant Elena was terrified of Judith. Every morning before Judith arrived Elena poured water with ice and placed it on a napkin on Judith’s desk just so. Some mornings when Judith would come in hungover (she also had me buy her scotch in my East Village neighborhood; it was cheaper than where she lived on Park Avenue) it didn’t matter if you’d done everything right. It would just be a bad day.
And bad days were aplenty. The phone messages I took were “cryptic,” I always “moved too slow” despite being able, athletic, yet perennially out of breath while I was on the clock. I was told I was “deaf, dumb and blind” regularly. It was an environment of high pressure, high stakes (now I wonder why — it was just clothes) and constant beratement, usually done in front of clients for maximum humiliation. It was so bad that I burst into tears on the subway platform almost every day when I left work.
Paying my entry-level dues meant taking 10-minute lunch breaks that I ate standing up and developing chronic UTIs from rarely taking bathroom breaks. Yet the job did not open doors for me. Being young and inexperienced in the workforce, I internalized the abuse into a crushed sense of self worth. After fifteen months, I finally quit, feeling less sure of myself and less capable than I had when I arrived.
After I left my job with Judith, I resolved to never again cry in front of someone who yelled at me. (In future roles, I’d run to the bathroom to shed my tears instead.) It didn’t occur to me until many years later that constant verbal abuse in a luxury department store was entirely unnecessary.
It’s important to remember that when we make the #girlboss everything, we make the women who work for her nothing.
I moved into design through fairly common channels, starting as an intern and laddering my way to low-paying jobs that required working long hours and weekends. The abuse also followed from female bosses who were closer to my age. Nothing as bad as Judith, but insidious snips about how I just didn’t “get it” and wasn’t good enough, constant finger pointing, and more dramatic wooden-hanger throwing still made for tough environments. (The wooden hanger was technically thrown at a male colleague, but I was standing next to him and had to duck.)
Throughout my jobs at various fashion labels both big and small, my boss’s success seemed contingent on my misery. If they were “winning,” my team members and I were likely emotionally drained, physically exhausted, and constantly reminded of how inept we were. None of these bosses were interested in “empowering” us to succeed. And before you chalk this up to just another entitled millennial with a flimsy work ethic, I’ll be clear: I had no problem using a hand dolly to wheel heavy rolls of fabric along 38th street to a factory. I had a problem doing it while also carrying my boss’s crying baby.
In an era when more women are reaching for the corner office and founding their own companies, exposing toxic female behavior in the workplace can seem anti-feminist. Why are we holding young women CEOs to a higher standard than their older male counterparts? When these women fail publicly and the media pile-on ensues, it feels similar to the collective schadenfreude of watching the prom queen get fat and lose all her friends.
But when we make the #girlboss everything, we make the women who work for her nothing. When a woman’s career advancement relies on a boss who abuses her power with verbal and even physical abuse, and that boss gets away with it, women are doing no better than the ousted men of the #metoo movement.
It’s important to acknowledge that #shetoo perpetrators operate within an inequitable system. Their behavior is reflective of a push to stand out professionally in a patriarchal world. This has been addressed with varying degrees of empathy in pop culture, ranging from assigning blame squarely to the boss bitch (Working Girl) rather than the zero-sum game she’s been groomed to play, to humanizing the ice queen with a husband who doesn’t fuck her anymore (Devil Wears Prada).
Despite an unfair system and its capitalist playbook, treating young women with respect and operating within standards that don’t require your staff to seek treatment should be the baseline. Women leaders on the panel circuit need to do better collectively. It’s not all about them and raising their profile, it’s about being truly invested in the success of the women in line behind them once they’re back in the office.
Toxic female bosses permeate fashion, but we cannot attribute toxic behavior to fashion. After seven years in the industry, I finally had a female boss who worked hard and pushed us without denigrating her team. I still count on her for support, most recently she wrote letters of recommendation for my PhD program at Oxford. The bosses mentioned above avoided any sort of actionable empowerment. Promotions I received occurred without their support, and sometimes despite their efforts to block my advancement. It is not the fashion industry that is the problem here, but the culture the fashion industry encourages and perpetuates that is at fault.
The “She-eo” has an opportunity (ed note: responsibility) to create a culture where women can demand excellence from their team while still being human and supportive. Does this mean women need to work harder to achieve a balance that we don’t expect from men? Not entirely. Leadership in general needs an overhaul. Women filling new leadership roles should set a higher standard. Collectively, we should hold both women and men accountable.