Over the past few months, Vice has been subject of a series of damning claims, with current and former women employees saying the company’s workplace culture has frequently been toxic for them, and accusing specific executives—including president Andrew Creighton, chief digital officer Mike Germano, and Jason Mojica, the one-time editor of ViceNews.com and later the head of Vice Media’s documentary film unit—of harassment. Yet feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who’s worked with the company since 2016, continues to defend co-founder Shane Smith, even as, some Vice employees told Jezebel, they haven’t had a chance to speak with her directly about their working conditions, and don’t know a single editorial employee who has.
Steinem came on at Vice in 2016 as the executive producer of the Viceland show WOMAN. (Former employees told us that while Steinem contributed voiceovers to the show and has conducted on-camera interviews for it, she was not involved in the day-to-day production of the program.) In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, at the 2018 Makers Conference, Steinem defended handing out buttons that read “We Put the ‘V’ in Vice” at a wrap party for the show at the end of 2017. By the time she handed out the buttons, Steinem told THR, “the people who had been in trouble were already gone.” She added that Vice are “a great group of people.”
That first claim, though, isn’t true. At the end of 2017, while three people had already been let go, Vice’s gender issues were still far from solved. Company president Andrew Creighton remains on leave following allegations of sexual harassment, and the other Vice employees, like chief digital officer Mike Germano, were only recently fired.
Steinem is a member of the diversity and inclusion board Vice launched in 2017 in response to all the bad press. It’s unclear, though, whether she’s attended any of the meetings where the board members met with Vice staff. Five current and former Vice employees told us that, to their knowledge, she hasn’t visited the company offices very much, and isn’t in a position to know much about its internal politics. They expressed frustration that she would seemingly side with Smith without talking to his employees. (All of them spoke to us on condition of anonymity, citing a rigid nondisclosure agreement that Vice employees have to sign.)
“I’ve never rolled my eyes so much,” one woman told us about Steinem’s statement that the “problem” employees were all gone by the end of last year. Another called it “outrageous” that Steinem wouldn’t be more concerned about Vice’s workplace culture.
Steinem’s assistant, Blaine Edens, told Jezebel that the Hollywood Reporter article is “riddled with errors,” adding, “She was misquoted and corrections ranged from factual inaccuracies to mischaracterizations.” She added that Steinem has been in the Vice offices twice since October, and is available should Vice staffers wish to speak to her.
Gloria has been to the Vice offices twice since early October. I wasn’t with her and can’t say who exactly may/may not have reached out to her. I can say that Gloria & our office are very accessible and reachable, and no Vice employees have reached out yet.
Several Vice staffers have told us, however, that access to Steinem has been tightly controlled by a small group of upper management executives. Contacting her independently or asking to talk to her was, they say, discouraged. Steinem has rarely been in the office, they say, and doesn’t appear to have a company email address, unlike other members of the diversity and inclusion board.
“That has never appeared to be an option,” a staffer told Jezebel, referring to contacting Steinem. “It was never suggested by her, her office, or Vice. It is the opposite.” Instead, the staffer adds, “she’s considered to be unapproachable,” with access chiefly running through Ariel Wengroff, Broadly’s publisher and Shane Smith’s former longtime assistant. Steinem did, however, do a lengthy Q&A with Broadly in May 2017.
Edens did not respond to two follow-up emails asking what the specific factual inaccuracies and mischaracterizations in the Hollywood Reporter piece were. The Hollywood Reporter has declined to give us an on-the-record statement about the supposed inaccuracies, though they have corrected a typo in the last paragraph of the piece. (None of Steinem’s quotes have been changed in the text.)
Vice’s public relations problems around the treatment of women began in December. Three people were fired in December after a report from the Daily Beast described the company culture as rife with sexual harassment. (Two of the people are still anonymous; a third has been named as Jason Mojica.)
Following a similar exposé from the New York Times, company co-founders Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi issued an apology to the staff, which read, in part, “Listening to our employees over the past year, the truth is inescapable: from the top down, we have failed as a company to create a safe and inclusive workplace where everyone, especially women, can feel respected and thrive.” Germano, was fired at the end of January following the Times story. Creighton was placed on leave, where he remains.
Among a raft of reforms, the company pledged in November to launch a diversity and inclusion board, with Steinem and other respected women as members. (They include Robbie Kaplan, who argued against the Defense of Marriage Act at the Supreme Court, former Vice COO Alyssa Mastromonaco, former Michelle Obama chief of staff Tina Tchen, Maya Harris, a former Hillary Clinton campaign advisor, Susan Tohyama, Vice’s new human resources officer, and Broadly publisher Ariel Wengroff.
Blake Edens, Steinem’s assistant, told us Steinem is “briefed” on the meetings with Vice employees:
Gloria is on the diversity inclusion committee which has many priorities, including ensuring Vice fulfills the commitment they have made to pay equity. Several members of this committee have been present for multiple meetings with staff and have reported those conversations to the full committee. Robbie Kaplan is chairing that and you should be in direct touch with her about those conversations. While the committee has been briefed on them, Robbie has been most consistently present and thus can offer the most insight.
The work at Vice, as with many media companies, clearly remains ongoing. Just last week, the company was hit with a pay discrimination lawsuit from Elizabeth Rose, a former employee who alleges women at Vice were systematically paid less than men. The company has previously made statements admitting that this is a problem: In their statement, Smith and Alvi said that they would commit to pay parity by the end of 2018. In a statement to the Times, a Vice spokesperson set a goal of “50/50 female/male representation at every level” by 2020.
All of this makes it curious that Steinem seems so relatively unbothered by the culture of the place she’s aligned herself with, and so apparently unfamiliar with the concerns of women who work there. Her comments to THR, one current Vice employee told us, “are so disconnected from the company and everything people are thinking and feeling.”
Overall, the women we spoke to expressed a sense of frustration, saying the company efforts to fix their gender issues felt more like public relations band-aids than real reform. Steinem, several said, was in a position to help make real change simply by demanding it of Smith and other executives. Instead, they said, it felt as though she was acting as part of an outward-facing public relations effort.
“I expect him to protect his own interests,” one told us, referring to Smith. “I expect more of Gloria Steinem.”
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