As the father of four daughters and the CMO of Lane Bryant, a brand that's helped change the conversation about body image in America in recent years, Brian Beitler considers himself a feminist.
"I don't say 'male feminist,'" he said during a presentation at the 4A's Transformation conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, during which he recounted his brand's campaign to make plus-size models part of mainstream culture. "I believe feminism is a men's issue."
"Which is why I have a little problem with the girls' room downstairs," he said. Beitler was referring to the Girls' Lounge, the gathering spot for women that's become a mainstay at marketing, tech and economic conferences around the world since it was founded in 2012.
"I looked in there this morning and I saw only women," Beitler said. "You can't move a conversation forward with one gender."
It's not the first time the Lounge—which offers "confidence training" and panel discussions about female empowerment, but also manicures, blowouts and beauty products—has faced criticism. Both its use of the word "girl" and its focus on surface femininity have been subjects of criticism.
Said one female agency executive who has long avoided the Girls' Lounge: "Having spent 25 years climbing the corporate ladder and championing equality for all, the perception that manicures are what matters is enough to keep me away." The executive, who requested anonymity to avoid inciting anger toward her agency, acknowledged she might think differently if she were to participate.
Such criticism is more commonly whispered than spoken, particularly by a C-level marketer from a women's clothing brand on a conference stage. Within moments, Girls' Lounge CEO Shelley Zalis had heard about the remark, and was making her way backstage.
When Beitler walked off stage, Zalis was waiting for him, and an animated conversation ensued. The two descended the escalator together—debating all the way—and entered the Lounge. Soon, Beitler was seated on the lounge's (much smaller) stage, a last-minute addition to a panel discussion titled "The Girl Gaze is More than a Perspective."
"Brian wasn't clear on why we need a Girls' Lounge today," said Zalis, "so I grabbed him off the stage and said, 'You have to come down here and share with the rest of us.'"
In a private interview, Zalis expressed her outrage with Beitler's on-stage comment, but also said it was nothing she hadn't heard before.
"It was awful," she said. "This is a space for women because women have issues with confidence and owning their voice." The Lounge is intended to help them "hone their strengths and not try to act like men. We want women to be women."
"Men are totally welcome here," she added, refuting Beitler's characterization.
The panel discussion was less contentious. "Brian, who I just pulled from the main stage, was talking about how conversations can't just be amongst women," Zalis said. "We're 50 percent of the population! Transformation must include men."
"I'm just grateful to be here," said Beitler, drawing laughs from the audience. He explained how his job—and his role as a father of daughters—focused him on women's self-esteem issues. "Regardless of your size, most women, when they look in the mirror, see the thing they don't like about their body first. And I want you to not see that first."
Beitler also defended a woman's right to cry at work—"I don't want you expending energy trying not to cry," he said—and ultimately expressed regret over his main stage comment.
"I'm glad I have better context now from Shelley—it's not about creating separation," he said. "I now understand why this room exists, and there's a reason for it."