Are women-only coworking spaces discriminatory?

The Wing
© The Wing

We're big fans of working from home, telecommuting to the office, or joining up with coworking spaces that have some helpful perks. As the coworking trend grows worldwide, some of these coworking spaces are starting to cater to specific demographics: some target architects, others are geared toward urban agriculturalists, while others are interested in fermenting 'social innovation'.

But this targeted approach is not without pitfalls: one women-only coworking space in New York City is now being looked into by the city's Human Rights Commission to see if the company is potentially violating laws against gender discrimination.

Founded back in 2016 as a space for women to work, network and mentor each other, The Wing is inspired by historical women's clubs that emerged a century ago. The Wing now boasts a membership of over 1,500 in three cities, it's since garnered $40 million in venture capital and a lot of attention. But as reported yesterday in Jezebel, the company is now being scrutinized about whether its policy -- which does not allow men to become members or even visit the facilities -- is discriminatory, despite the lack of an actual complaint.

"Harassment-free zone"

For some, the idea of a women-only space seems unnecessary and even offensive. For others, it's a space to feel more safe, nurtured and part of a larger community that offers opportunities to be more socially and politically active. It makes for an interesting debate: while such spaces are obviously in demand, but some experts contend that what The Wing is doing is technically illegal.

On the other hand however, The Wing has made pains to welcome minorities of all stripes who might not feel like they comfortably belong in conventional, more male-dominated coworking spaces, such as women of colour and trans women. In looking at the bigger picture, it seems that one has to take into account the balance of power: who has it and who doesn't -- and how our spaces and access to those spaces can be affected by these social realities. Then, there's also a big difference between this one relatively small space, versus systemic problems in the general workplace, as U.C. Berkeley professor of law Melissa Murray points out:

I think it’s patently absurd for New York’s human rights commission to be focusing on The Wing when we’ve had, over the last six months, numerous complaints about workplaces being absolutely hostile to women in terms of pervasive and endemic sexual harassment. Leaving aside the fact that so many workplaces seem to be rife with incidents of sexual harassment, now, after #MeToo, I think there are a lot of men in positions of authority who are going to be really skeptical and afraid to mentor women and that might make a space like this even more necessary.

It seems ironic that the one such space that aims to provide a safe space for women is now potentially being called out for discriminating against men. As one Wing member relates on Jezebel:

One of the things I deal with on a daily basis, living in New York and being a woman, is street harassment, and harassment in coffee shops where I used to work before I came to The Wing. Being able to go to work in a harassment-free zone, where I’ll know that I’m not going to be catcalled, where I can actually get my work done... is really special and important and worth protecting.

Ultimately, there doesn't seem to be many clear-cut answers to the assortment of questions that are being raised here. Are women-only collaborative spaces still relevant in 2018? What about spaces for women of colour or other minority identities? Is this space an appropriate target of the law against gender discrimination, which was initially intended to open doors for women and minorities into male-dominated spaces? Is there a better way to solve this problem of inequality and sexual harrassment in the workplace? There are a lot of nuances to the issue, and you can read more about them in depth in the piece over at Jezebel.

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