Have you ever had a coworker exclude you from a party or meeting in a way that reminded you distinctly of high school? What about a boss who used public humiliation as a way to punish employees? Ever work a job so demanding that it took over your entire life, leaving little time to do things like eat lunch or go to the bathroom, while barely paying you enough to live on?
If you've worked in fashion for awhile, there's a decent chance you could answer yes to at least one of the above. These kinds of stories are so common that to many fashion people, they hardly seem worth batting an eye at. Instead, these injustices are accumulated by NYFW veterans and PR pros like badges of honor that prove just how dedicated we all are to our jobs.
But what if it didn't have to be that way? This fall, Fashionista partnered with A Fashionable Pause, an investigative project on the state of the industry spearheaded by PR pro Ken Loo, to see just how commonplace these kinds of experiences are within the fashion industry, with the hopes of spurring change. We anonymously surveyed 640 people working in PR, editorial, retail, design and more to hear their stories.
"The reality is there are toxic work environments in every industry, but because of our proximity to luxury and glamour, we're expected to 'deal with it' a little bit more because of the perks. Still, you can't pay your rent on perks," wrote one anonymous survey respondent.
Our hope is that gathering data about bullying, stress and a lack of work-life balance in fashion might help us recognize the problems that are unique to our industry — and begin to see a path towards addressing those issues. Read on for a summary, then download the full PDF of results below.
The fact that the original survey had the word "bullying" in the title means it probably attracted people who have experienced those kinds of behaviors, so it's unsurprising that many respondents said they've experienced workplace bullying in fashion. For the purposes of the survey, bullying was defined as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment... that involves threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done; or verbal abuse," as per the Workplace Bullying Institute.
What's most revealing is where the reported bullying stemmed from and how frequently it occurred: More than two-thirds of people said that bullying is the norm in their work environment, with 81 percent stating that they'd been bullied by a supervisor and 61 percent saying they were bullied by coworkers. As for the forms that bullying can take, 72 percent claim they've had bosses who use public humiliation as a form of punishment, 60 percent said their supervisors have used job security as a threat (saying things like "there are dozens of people waiting to snatch your job if you don't want it") and 77 percent revealed they've been yelled at in the workplace.
The most sobering anecdotes came in the form of write-in responses, which described coworker cyberbullying via anonymous Twitter handles, deliberate exclusion from office-wide parties or meetings, verbal abuse and more.
"It's an incredible shame to be in a woman-dominated industry as a young woman with the hopes that such a community would be uplifting, encouraging and inspiring," wrote one survey-taker. "I wish I could say that my experience was an anomaly, but I have yet to hear a positive career story from the fashion/retail merchant industry."
For some respondents, the biggest problems arose from a set of unrealistic expectations in their workplace. Work-life balance — or the lack thereof — presented a particular sticking point. About a third of respondents said they work more than 10 uncompensated hours per week, and 83 percent of people said they're expected to be available to their bosses via text or email even when they're not on the clock. And while they are on the clock, more than half of our sample said that it's not uncommon to feel like "there isn't time to do basic things like eat or go to the bathroom." It's perhaps no surprise, then, that 58 percent of people reported being at least somewhat dissatisfied with their work-life balance.
"Other industries get paid for the bullshit they're put through, while we're underpaid, overworked and with no benefits," one respondent wrote.
But it's not just expectations about time commitments that are out of wack. It's also expectations about how one "should" look to work in fashion. Almost half of the survey respondents said they'd received negative feedback at work based on what they wore or how they looked; more than half said there was an expectation that they should dress beyond their means. One respondent recalled being forced to wear heels and forego a needed ankle brace and crutches when around clients.
Other stories crossed the line into flat-out discrimination based on religion (i.e. when a Muslim or Jehovah's Witness wanted to dress in accordance with their beliefs about modesty or take time off for a religious holiday), race and size ("my boss quickly got rid of people who didn't meet her 'look' requirements... now everyone who works there is thin and 99 percent white"), the glamorization of eating disorders and more.
"I was told by a major Condé Nast EIC that although I was brilliant, I looked 'too scrappy' to work on a print publication, so I could either essentially get a makeover or work in digital, where I was allowed to look 'more creative.' That same EIC refused to promote a colleague because she 'didn't look like the magazine,' i.e. she wasn't beautiful/thin," one anonymous person wrote.
While all of the above is problematic in and of itself, the fact that there's often little recourse for those who fall victim to toxic workplace dynamics is what can leave many feeling helpless. More than half of the people who took the survey said there is no human resources department or responsible person trained to handle issues in their workplace, and 87 percent said that employees don't feel safe addressing issues with their supervisors.
The fact that 88 percent reported having cried after a workplace encounter and 84 percent said their work environment has made them consider leaving the fashion industry entirely seems to follow naturally from that. This is a real loss for fashion as a whole, because if the industry can't hold onto people who expect basic levels of human decency to be a part of their jobs, then the people who rise to the top and set the culture are more likely to be those who think that bullying, constant overtime and discrimination are normal.
"I would love to go back in time and tell my 17-year-old self not to pursue fashion design," wrote one respondent, while another described her job as a buyer for a big-name department store as "the most abusive workplace I've ever been in, including working at [a] prison." Still others described feeling gaslit, wrestling with what feels like PTSD from cruel bosses and even becoming suicidal as a result of harrowing fashion job experiences.
All of this paints a bleak picture that should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone outside the industry who's unduly seduced by the allure of free clothes, hanging out with celebrities and attending fancy fashion week parties. But for those of the us already in the trenches, it makes one thing clear: We've got to do better, and hold each other — as well as the most powerful players in our industry — accountable.
To read the full report, download the Fashionista x A Fashionable Pause PDF by completing the form below.