Phillip Picardi is a 27-year-old man helping to redefine what it means to be a young woman in America today.
When Picardi began working at Condé Nast as an intern in 2010, Teen Vogue was a magazine largely dismissed by mainstream audiences as fashion and beauty fluff. Today, thanks in large part to Picardi’s vision as he scaled the ranks from online beauty editor to digital editorial director to chief content officer, Teen Vogue is one of the the most prominent and most woke teen magazines in America.
Renowned for its coverage of politics, culture, social justice, health, and LGBTQ issues—alongside brilliant fashion and beauty writing—Teen Vogue epitomizes Picardi’s belief, championed throughout the 2016 US presidential election, that young women deserve to be treated as intelligent human beings, capable of valuing both politics and fashion, without compromising their potential.
In August 2018, Picardi announced his next endeavor: becoming editor-in-chief of Out magazine, a legacy LGBTQ publication based in Brooklyn.
In conversation with Quartz, Picardi explains why we need to ditch the trope of the “emotionally unstable genius” leader, why he’s rewriting sex-ed scripts for young adults, and what he regrets telling a female colleague.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
It’s probably wise to point out here that Tarana Burke started the Me Too Movement years before it was brought to a public spotlight by public and political figures. But if we’re asking if gender parity has been something I’ve thought of throughout my career, it of course has. I have always had women as bosses, and have always worked in predominately female work environments and newsrooms.
One of the things I’ve been most grateful for from the Me Too movement is the discussion of toxic workplace behavior. You learn very quickly in the publishing industry that bad behavior among bosses has been rewarded by our gatekeepers for ages. It’s been a really terrible myth in our field that bad behaviors—mood swings, yelling, debasing employees, even exorbitant spending and holier-than-thou attitudes—are somehow these permissible indicators of genius. It was crucial for me to unlearn this, and to stop glorifying the worst perpetrators of it.
Now, I think human resources departments and supervisors are more vigilant about protecting junior staff, rather than reinforcing bosses with bad reputations or high turnover rates. These conversations have made me—especially as a man managing mostly women—far more conscious of how I speak, how often I’m speaking, and how I deliver criticism or feedback. I wish these things were a part of management trainings or even mentoring within corporations.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
I identify as a feminist, and pretty much have ever since I was a six-year-old screaming “Girl Power!” because I saw the Spice Girls doing it.
3. What do you do on a day-to-day basis to advance gender equality?
I hope that the work Teen Vogue is doing is helping to educate a whole new generation of young people—and that includes shaping how young women see themselves and demand to be represented by the media at large. In particular, our sexual health coverage has drawn a lot of attention (positive and negative) from parents, but I always felt like this was a common-sense part of our editorial planning.
I know firsthand having lived as a gay teenager what can happen if you’re not educated about your body and are taught by adults and schooling to be ashamed of your sexuality. So I wanted a place where young people could learn the things that weren’t taught (or weren’t taught properly) in sex ed. That’s everything from making sure our language or coverage is trans-inclusive, to explaining consent, to dedicating whole articles to masturbation or the clitoris, and debunking harmful and slut-shaming myths about (particularly women’s) sexuality.
4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
Our president! I remember I was walking down the street shortly after the election when I passed a troupe of (white) teenage boys, all wearing red MAGA caps. I was so confused that the president’s brand of xenophobia, racism, sexism, and beyond had actually resonated with these kids—especially because I had been working at Teen Vogue, preaching the virtues of the future as Trumpism’s eventual demise. I guess this is why I wasn’t all that surprised when a GLAAD study came out that showed that, for the first time in four years, Americans are less accepting of LGBT people. When GLAAD dug into the data, the demographic that showed the most significant drop-off was among young men.
I can imagine that young men—specifically young white men—are growing up with mixed signals. If you’re a young man watching the world unfold before your eyes, you’re seeing a president who displays all the worst traits of so-called masculinity—screaming, bullying, brute force, physical threats—get rewarded for this behavior with the highest office in the land.
From voter data, we can also surmise that the fathers of these young men are more likely than not to support Trump. Trump appeals to the basest qualities of men—he’s the National Lampoon president. But let’s not kid ourselves: His tactics are effective among white men, and if those men have sons, their sons will look to their dads to help inform their worldview and political opinions. This is a vicious cycle.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what’s your biggest inhibition to doing so?
The hardest conversations I’ve ever had about sexism have been with men in my family. At a dinner table, if I address a sexist remark made by one of the men in my family, the other men in the room come to his rescue or accuse me of being the “PC police.” One of the worst things about actually wanting to change men’s behavior is that publicly shaming or confronting them oftentimes puts them on the defensive and inflames the situation.
One of my biggest inhibitions in confronting straight men is homophobia—in these circumstances, men will often lash out at me by mimicking the way I talk or doing impersonations of what I’ve said with a limp wrist or a lisp. (Real cool, guys!) I have found that texting some of these men in the aftermath or waiting for the next morning in a calm, one-on-one environment is most effective.
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
I sometimes feel like I’m not “man enough,” and when I’m in situations with a lot of straight men (like, say, boardroom meetings) I feel suddenly self-conscious of what I chose to wear that day or how my voice sounds when I speak.
7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?
It has always been women who stood up for me, advocated for me, encouraged me, and raised me. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it weren’t for the women in my life.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
I’d say that, no matter how hard it feels for you, it’s STILL harder for women to speak up and say the exact same thing that’s coming out of your mouth. And that’s why you need to be speaking up in the first place.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
A co-worker once told me she felt like she couldn’t behave like me at work for fear of facing consequences. At the time, I thought this was absurd. I had done what I considered common-sense things, like hiding my calendar so that people couldn’t place meetings on there without consent; or I would request agendas or shorter meetings than people planned for; or I’d generally be very straightforward in the feedback I gave.
She considered my behavior to be direct, and was frustrated that she would be viewed harshly if she acted similarly. I remember telling her to not care what people thought, as though that were a realistic solution. I still feel like that was a dumb, “dude” thing to say. I should have instead altered my behavior in meetings we shared to make her more comfortable and to not give the impression that I was more authoritative than she. I also should have more closely watched how people perceived her for acting the same way I did, and then addressed that with people separately to be a better advocate.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
My dad and I sure have a lot to disagree on these days, but I think in his older age he’s had a lot of time to reflect on his life and his values. One thing he said to me recently was, “Your job won’t love you back, so make sure you pay attention to and take care of the people in your life first.” He and my mom led a very traditional, gendered marriage—and he’s been open in sharing his regrets about that now that he’s a grandfather.
My best advice for young men is to identify a woman as your mentor or hero. It doesn’t make you any less of a man to have a mix of people as your heroes and role models. I look up to so many women—including my boss—who have taught me to be a better person, manager, friend, son, and partner. Why deny yourself all of that possibility for greatness and enlightenment solely on the basis of gender?