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Amid the protests over the death of George Floyd and larger racial inequalities in the US last week, Refinery29 swapped the colors of its website, going from its usual jewel-tone to the Black Lives Matter movement’s signature black. It was supposed to be a show of solidarity and of unity between a progressive website aimed at women and the movement.

Instead it inspired a revolt.

In the ensuing days, a number of former employees came forward on Twitter to call out what they saw as hypocrisy on the part of the website’s leadership, especially when it came to matters of race and diversity. The site’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, had repeatedly confused one black woman with another, one said; another tweeted that an executive once confused her with the caterer; a third person said she was paid $15,000 less than her two white coworkers who were doing the same job. And within less than a week, Barberich was out of her job, saying on Monday she was stepping down “to help diversify our leadership in editorial.”

Ashley C. Ford, the former employee who said Barberich used to confuse her for another black woman, was one of the most prominent people who spoke out, saying in one tweet that she’d left Refinery29 after nine months because of a “toxic company culture where white women’s egos ruled.” She was moved to tweet, she told CNN Business afterward, by seeing a thread from another former employee, Ashley Alese Edwards.

“[W]hen I started reading that thread and started seeing some of the responses to it, the big thing that hit me was, ‘Oh, you idiot. Leaving didn’t make anything stop. … You left and they kept doing this. They kept treating women like this. They kept treating black women like this,’” she said.

Ford and Edwards were not the only ones who spoke out, or the only ones with disturbing stories to tell. Some sources who spoke to CNN Business said there was a glaring lack of diversity at the company. Some said that despite the inclusive image that the site tried to present, Barberich made a number of editorial decisions that had the effect of diminishing minority and especially black women.

When Barberich was approving photos for the site, a former editor and a former executive photography director told CNN Business, she would reject some as “off-brand.” The pictures she rejected that way were consistently of women who were either black or plus-size, they said.

These two former employees said they knew the types of celebrities that Barberich would approve to be included in Refinery’s coverage, and that her decisions appeared to be based on race.

Barberich “loved Solange Knowles, Janelle Monáe was OK, but otherwise our team knew which celebrities would get rejected… the black ones,” the former editor said. “We kept pitching them anyway. But it was a running and grim, unfunny joke on our team. We’d say, ‘Gee, I wonder who will possibly get cut?’ Because we knew.”

In response to this accusation, Barberich said in a statement, “My goal has always been to help close the representation gap and I believe that is reflected across the pages of Refinery29.”

The former executive photography director said she repeatedly filed human resources complaints against Barberich for her editorial choices but was told by an HR representative that it was not the company’s job to manage Barberich, who reported to global president and chief content officer Amy Emmerich.

Statement from Nancy Dubuc, CEO, VICE Media Group

  • “We are deeply dismayed to learn of the toxic culture that has existed at Refinery29, issues we were not made aware of when we acquired the company in November 2019 and for which the founders have apologized and taken accountability. It is unacceptable, and we are grateful to all the people who bravely came forward to shed light on the situation. We have announced a search for a new Editor-In-Chief of Refinery29 and an immediate action plan to ensure that our workplace empowers diversity, equity, and inclusion inside our walls and reflects the brand purpose audiences have come to know us for.”

    Statement from Christine Barberich, former editor-in-chief of Refinery29

  • “I co-founded Refinery29 to do something different: I wanted to amplify and build community around women rarely seen or heard in media, including media directed at women themselves. I know now that we fell short in cultivating that same mission and building that same safe space within Refinery29, to the detriment of Black women and women of color in particular. Leadership at Refinery29 owns that, and I own that. I realize that, over the past fifteen years, these women have given Refinery29 its voice, its purpose, its defining vision. I couldn’t see how my own perspectives and privileges held back the changes that needed to be made to further that purpose and vision, and to provide these women with the support they needed. That was a failure on my part. To all those I let down, especially members of my own team: I’m deeply sorry. The reason I stepped aside this week was to acknowledge that failing, and to make space for a new editor-in chief and a new generation of leadership at Refinery29 who can forge a path with an even deeper commitment to our original mission.”

    Nancy Dubuc, the CEO of Vice Media Group, which owns Refinery29, said in a statement to CNN Business on Thursday, that Vice was unaware of the “toxic culture” at Refinery29 when it acquired the company. “It is unacceptable, and we are grateful to all the people who bravely came forward to shed light on the situation,” she said. Dubuc added that Vice is looking for a new editor-In-chief for the site and has put in place an “immediate action plan to ensure that our workplace empowers diversity, equity, and inclusion inside our walls and reflects the brand purpose audiences have come to know us for.”

    In a lengthy statement responding to CNN Business’ questions about her alleged actions, Barberich said she had co-founded Refinery29 to “amplify and build community around women rarely seen or heard in media.” She acknowledged a personal failure to do that, “to the detriment of Black women and women of color in particular,” saying, “I couldn’t see how my own perspectives and privileges held back the changes that needed to be made to further that purpose and vision, and to provide these women with the support they needed.” She continued, “To all those I let down, especially members of my own team: I’m deeply sorry. The reason I stepped aside this week was to acknowledge that failing, and to make space for a new editor-in chief and a new generation of leadership at Refinery29 who can forge a path with an even deeper commitment to our original mission.”

    When Vice Media announced last year that it was acquiring Refinery29, Dubuc sent a memo to staffers in which she acknowledged the seemingly mismatched company cultures. Vice is the notoriously edgy hipster outfit that was the subject of a 2017 New York Times article exposing toxicity and sexual harassment scandals inside the company, while Refinery29 is a fashion site aimed at progressive women and promoting diversity and inclusion. “[H]ow can the ‘bros’ ever mesh with the feminists of Refinery?” she asked.

    But 60 current and former Refinery29 employees who spoke with CNN Business over the course of a lengthy investigation painted a picture of a culture that actually fit quite well. The issues at Refinery29 were not limited to ones around race, they said. Refinery29’s official mission is for women to “claim their power,” but the video team was led by a male manager who, three former female staffers allege, verbally abused them in public. Refinery29 promotes stories about self-care, but 23 employees said overly ambitious traffic demands made them feel chained to their desks, and others said it kept them from taking vacations. Refinery29 tells women to ask for more money, even publishing a book that dealt in part with the subject, but 27 staffers said they were underpaid or restricted from raises.  

    “When people talk about the cultures not meshing it’s astonishing to me because from what I can tell the cultures are very similar,” a former editor said. “[A] culture that’s about corporate excess and workers being treated terribly, that’s Refinery.”  

    Unbothered

    Refinery29 had started as a fashion and beauty blog. But over time it evolved into a site that included coverage of women’s issues, pay gaps, and sexual harassment, among other topics. In 2016, it launched The 67% Project, a campaign to promote female representation of “all shapes and sizes” by highlighting the population of women “who are defined as plus size.” Money Diaries, a reader-generated column, challenged women to speak more openly about salaries and money management.   

    Refinery29 office in New York City. (Courtesy of Chad McPhail)

    Many of the sources who spoke to CNN Business about their experiences at Refinery29 said they had joined the company enthusiastic about being part of a brand dedicated to women’s empowerment. But once inside they were shocked by a workplace that seemed at odds with its public image.

    “Walking around that office when I worked there, it was very white, very straight,” a former producer said. “That always bugged me. It’s not what I expected. It’s not that they didn’t believe in the message, but the talent needs to reflect the content they are producing.”

    Nikki Tucker, a former social media editor, said, “Refinery was really touted as that millennial place of inclusivity, where women are celebrated. You’re not shamed for your body. It felt right up my alley. As a black woman in America, there aren’t really too many spaces for me to be at a place where inclusivity is celebrated — at least, so I thought.”

    Kristin Booker, a writer on contract at Refinery29 in 2014, recalled that she was one of only a few black people in the office when she worked there.

    Ford worked at Refinery29 in 2017. She “would spend a lot of time in office late,” she said, and the people who were “most likely there, still working … were black women.”