Career & Education / Climbing The Ladder / Essays & Confessions / Living

4 Lessons I Learned From The Sohla El-Waylly vs. Bon Appetit Scandal

By Thursday, October 01, 2020

Cooking in kitchen

As an avid home cook, Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel had long been a source of inspiration, comfort, and laughter for me. In June of this year, I had a rude awakening when the publication’s assistant food editor, Sohla El-Waylly, published an expose-style Instagram story, detailing the blatant pay inequities and toxic workplace culture behind all those quirky, cozy videos.

In the ensuing months, the majority of the main cast on the channel rallied behind El-Waylly and resigned from appearing in future videos. This reckoning for the seemingly unconquerable Conde Nast taught me — a food lover and woman of color in the media and communications industry — several valuable lessons.

Know Your Worth

We toss around the phrase “Know your worth” a lot, but this was one of the first times I’d seen it in action and at such a high profile. When I read El-Waylly’s Instagram story for the first time, I gasped audibly; she was offered a mere $50,000 salary for more than 15 years of experience. This seemed especially ludicrous to me, considering that a major publishing company like Conde Nast is located in one of the most expensive cities in the United States (New York).

In an interview with Buzzfeed, El-Waylly revealed that she asked for $65,000 during the application process; a reasonable request given her level of experience. According to the article, she took the job and accepted the low offer because it was her second job in media, and the position’s description only included cross-testing recipes.

Her salary was later raised to $60,000 in May, only after she asked that her pay reflect her increased responsibilities. But a raise is not the same as truly valuing an employee and their hard efforts. El-Waylly knew this first hand from her own experiences at the company, which included a combination of: a continuous pattern of discrimination, ongoing microaggresions toward staff of color, and pay inequities.

As a result, she refused to appear in any more video content for Bon Appetit, until the systemic issues were resolved, followed shortly by her colleagues, in turn effectively stymying a lucrative stream of income for the company. 

You Do Not Have To Settle

Over the summer, a controversial photo of Bon Appetit’s former editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport, dressed as a crude caricature of a Puerto Rican man, resurfaced online. 

That was the final straw. 

In a company-wide meeting, El-Wally called for Rapoport’s resignation following his brownface scandal. To me, El-Wally’s actions cemented her willingness to stand up for herself, even at great, personal risk.

When you are one of the few people (or at times, the only person) of a marginalized group in a workplace, it can feel incredibly isolating. Often you feel like you have to prove yourself to your colleagues, while simultaneously not being “difficult” lest your company finds a reason to change their opinion of you and your work.

Most times this can lead to a warped sense of your own value, where you are willing to accept less, out of fear that you may not get this opportunity again. However, this limited mindset serves no one but the company’s bottom line. If your job is giving you scraps, you don’t have to settle for it. If you have the opportunity to do so, figure out your next steps and move on.  

Though she has since departed from starring in videos for Bon Appetit, El-Waylly is still producing recipes and articles, as well as making regular appearances on successful shows like NYT Cooking, Binging with Babish, and Food 52 — while more than likely being fairly compensated.

“Shallow Diversity” Isn’t Diversity

According to subsequent social media posts, El-Waylly and her other co-workers of color, including Priya Krishna, Rick Martinez, Christina Chaey, and Gaby Melian, were often asked to appear in test kitchen videos to improve the brand’s image regarding diversity.

However, all claim to have never been paid for their video work. Meanwhile, their White cast members, who just happened to have individual shows like “Gourmet Makes,” “It’s Alive,” “Back to Back,” and “It’s Alive,” were said to have been compensated.

Similar to the often problematic “Girl Boss” narrative that if one woman reaches CEO-levels of success, it’s a so-called win for feminism, it really doesn’t matter how many women, people of color, or LGBTQ people there are in a company if every single member of that company is not valued equally.

Transparency — And Unionization — Is The Way Forward

Former BA food editor at large Carla Lalli Music, senior food editor Molly Baz, and contributing editor Claire Saffitz expressed both surprise and total ignorance of the fact that their colleagues of color were not being compensated, and that many more staff members had experienced a hostile work environment.

This points to a larger issue not only of complicity and allyship on a societal level but of transparency on a corporate level. In order to address pay gaps, companies should be open about what the salary ranges are for various levels of experience and responsibility.

A union also gives employees the power of collective bargaining and greater representation,  as well as protecting them from such disparities. Equal pay and benefits, along with the right to not do work that isn’t part of your job description, can be part of the protection that comes with the unionizing process.

Making sure you and your colleagues are treated fairly and respectfully is vital to a healthy workplace. While the BA staff do not have an official union, I can only hope their collective power is greater than that of the corporate overlords who chose to continually back away from progress.

Lian is a writer, journalist, and ramen enthusiast, currently living in Boston with her partner.

Image via Youtube

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