Episode 131: Would You Work in a Women-Only Space?

Show transcript: 

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, female-only workspaces are becoming more popular. To fans, they’re a haven for professional women…

“What’s happening here is people are feeling comfortable and not drowned out, and like they’re being heard.”

But others aren’t keen on the idea of a male-free environment…

“We're supposed to be championing diversity, and women have done so much to do that. And this felt like we were going a little bit backwards.”

Coming up – the pros and cons of women-only workspaces.

So about a year and a half ago I heard about this female only workspace slash social club that was opening in New York. The founders were two young women, glamourous and well connected. The place was called The Wing. And I remember thinking, wow, what a good idea – a women-only space that looks like it’s beautiful, comfortable, and all about supporting women in their work. You had to apply to get in and like a lot of freelancers I was already using a co-working space, so I never applied. But I liked the idea.

Now The Wing is not the only female co-working space out there – there are quite a few others in cities around the US and abroad as well. What’s different about this space is the amount of investment the two founders have received to grow the business – The Wing is expanding to cities on the west coast and Toronto and London. It doesn’t let men in, even as guests. And the space debuted at a particular moment in the culture.

A moment when a lot of American women were looking forward to the first ever female president. And then they got Donald Trump. The idea of a women-only club and workspace seemed more attractive than ever to a lot of applicants. There’s a waiting list to join.

“So yeah, it’s all color-coded books, as you can see, which is quite beautiful…”

I visited a branch of The Wing in Brooklyn recently and met a member, fellow podcaster Mallory Kasdan. She showed me around the light-filled, pastel-toned office space…complete with mid-century modern furniture and color-coordinated bookshelves packed with books by and for women.

“So this is a little bookcase that doubles as a phone booth. So it’s awesome, you can go in here…and you can talk on the phone…” 

“Oh, and it’s a retro phone, as well…” 

There’s a café and plenty of other amenities as well – showers, a meditation room, a lactation room, a podcast studio…and my personal favorite…

“…the little room where you can get ready, there’s lots of products.”

“Yeah, there are hairdryers, and hair straighteners…”

“Lots of products…sometimes I just put on some hand lotion because I can.”

All these features are pretty appealing, I have to say. Especially if your hair reacts to the weather like mine does.

But for Mallory joining the space wasn’t really about this. She’s a voiceover artist – you’ll have heard her in lots of ads – and she hosts a podcast called the MILK Podcast - stands for Moms I’d Like to Know. When she’s not in a radio studio she spends a lot of time working at home. She joined this workspace for a few reasons.  

“Primarily it was to get out of house, secondarily because it looked beautiful and third, it was to network and use it for what it’s meant to be which is, you meet someone in the bathroom and they say, cute clogs, and you say, thanks, what’s your name, what do you do? It really is like that, I’ve had that conversation with a couple of women. It’s nice. I think people want to connect, especially people who are freelancers…and maybe don’t have an office space to go to where they have those water cooler-y conversations. I think people want that a little bit.”

AMT: “And how does it feel when you’re here, being surrounded by other women?”

“It feels great. I mean I walked outside a few weeks after it opened…there was a guy walking his dog and he was on the phone with his headpiece in, and he was just shouting, like unnecessarily, taking up space in public for no reason. And I felt like that just wouldn’t happen here, people are just aware of eachother. And I’m not saying that all men are loud talkers on the street and take up a lot of space with their phone calls. But that reminded me of why it was nice to not have to deal with that, it has never happened here. I’ve never felt like anyone’s ever irresponsible with their voice or body. It’s just respectful. And that to me is really lovely.”

OK….so that’s not to say women can’t be annoying on their phones too. We undoubtedly can. But Mallory’s getting at something another guest echoed.

You’ve met Leigh Stringer before, in a show I did last year on putting yourself first. Leigh is an architect and an expert on our physical workspaces and how they can work better for us – and how we can get the most out of them. She joined the Washington DC branch of The Wing and this spring she wrote a piece for Slate in which she interviewed women in DC and New York about why they had joined this female-only workspace.

“A lot of people said they were inspired to join something like this after the election, the 2016 election. A lot of people said it was the #MeToo movement, the need to feel safe in an environment that just made them feel like, there would never be any sort of harassment issue right? That's not to say women don't harass women occasionally, but it's not nearly to the level that being in an environment perhaps with all men…A lot of them felt like they, especially in D.C., a lot of people who work for the Defense Department, who work for companies that are all technology companies, that are just all men, and they don't have any community. They're really missing…even in New York, a litigator saying, ‘I really miss having women around me but I work crazy hours I don't have time to do that.’ And you know I hadn't, until, you know, in this one litigator’s case she quit her job and joined The Wing and was trying to re-evaluate, and was just, like, it's just been so nice to be around other women and look at other models of working.”

So for a lot of women, working in a women-only space is about camaraderie. But it’s also about not having to feel like you don’t fit in with the culture. Mallory puts it this way.

“What’s happening here is people are feeling comfortable and not drowned out, and like they’re being heard.”

And she says the current political climate in the US – it’s another reason she’s drawn to the unabashedly feminist vibe at The Wing.

“Just politically and what’s been happening the last couple of years, I think people are really tired and aggravated and angry and scared, and want to fight against what’s happening, against what I see as kind of a terrifying government and culture, and a split culture, and feeling like I have to fight for what I believe is right within that. So I think having said all that, I think this is just a peaceful and lovely place to feel like everyone agrees with you – and maybe that’s a problem right now that we’re having in this country, that we only want to listen to voices that we agree with, and we’re only reading what we want to hear…”

And that’s true for a lot of us. Depending on where you live, you can easily find yourself in a cultural and political bubble – you might well seek it out. And if any of the women at The Wing’s current branches in New York and DC are Trump supporters, they’re not letting on. So for most members, it really does feel like a safe space.

But whether it’s world views or work styles, my next guest isn’t sure we should want complete consensus when we’re at the office.

“In real life you have to speak to lots of people that you don’t necessarily identify with who irritate the hell out of you, and by creating this sort of sanitised environment where we are all in agreement, were all one big happy family, I think that can kind of become a breed a breeding ground for seething resentment, and its unrealistic, the rest of the world isn’t like that. So why would you want to do it nine to five?”

Coming up in a moment.

Amy Rowe is the same age as the founders of The Wing – early 30s. She lives and works in Brighton, in the south of England. She’s the co-founder of a content marketing agency and everyone at her small company works out of a co-working space – complete with its own coffee shop…

“…funky cushions, nice lighting. It’s like you’re walking into an IKEA catalog.”

Her workspace also has plenty of men. I’d corresponded with Amy over Twitter and email before we spoke. So I knew she didn’t love the idea of women-only workspaces.

“No. And I'm prepared for the backlash that might ensue from me saying this, but my reaction was actually disappointment. And there are loads and loads of reasons for this, but very personally I am big on diversity in workspaces. I'm half deaf. I wear hearing aids, so it's something that, as well as my day job I work for a deaf charity, I talk to businesses about how they can improve diversity and how diversity in a business can really help creativity within the workplace. And I just thought, gosh, if we're having workplaces that are female only and no males, I mean what is that doing? Is that creating a sort of cookie cutter generation of workers? And I like working with men, what can I say. I like working with all sorts of different people and I've learnt a lot from doing that. So I felt that this was, first of all I just thought it was a very odd step. We're supposed to be championing diversity, and women have done so much to do that. And this felt like we were going a little bit backwards.”

She is not alone. When I tweeted about this several people got back to me saying the whole idea was retro; not helpful to the cause of equality. Though one man said he understood perfectly.

But what about what many founders of female-only spaces have said…that they’re creating somewhere where it’s easy for women to network and help other women get ahead? This is especially relevant for women entrepreneurs who are often shut out of male-heavy networks.

“I completely agree with creating spaces for women to interact with other women. And as you say if you are a founder it's really important that you are being put in touch or in the same space as women-friendly investors. And we all know that there's a big problem with the money flowing into women-run companies, so that's definitely a problem. I don't think a female-only coworking space is going to solve that problem. I don't think it's necessary. One of the reasons I don't think it's necessary is because I just felt, feel like these places sort of echo the elitism that you find in men only spaces.”

A lot of people agree. Why create a girls’ club when everyone should be striving for equality?

“Let's remember that we've been fighting for a very long time, women, to be at a table with everybody, right? Not to create another one and keep others off, so this just feels very elitist.”

Elitist in more ways than one, she says. These spaces aren’t free. Membership fees at The Wing are $215 a month and while that is relatively cheap rent for a workspace in a major city…

“It feels like it’s only targeted at a certain number of women who already enjoy a good socio-economic status. So it just feels like another club, and I have to say I've enjoyed all the trappings of being, I'm going to be honest, a middle class white woman, right. I have people I can talk to. I had a mentor. I was given all sorts of opportunities. And these are the things that I don't think are being addressed for other women that really need a leg up.”

The Wing is sensitive to this criticism. It’s started a scholarship program to try to diversify its membership from a socio-economic standpoint. It says it has a mixture of women of different ethnic backgrounds and increasingly of different ages as well (although I would say it’s mostly millennials). And you could argue any workspace outside of your living room is an investment.

Amy has said she enjoys working alongside men. But some women jump at the chance to work with other women. My friend Molly joined The Wing a few months ago but when we last spoke she hadn’t had the chance to use it yet because she’d just had her second child. But she emailed me about why she’d joined.

I just really like the company of women but on top of that I think it makes for a better work environment. At my former co-working space (We work) there were so many gross dudes. One guy in particular would walk around one of the common areas I liked to work in and talk loudly on his phone about all the sex he'd had the previous weekend. It was SO GROSS and weirdly aggressive. 

I said to Amy, let’s talk about this aspect of a female-only space: Dumping the bros.

“Okay, so dumping the bros, I mean we'd all like to dump the bros. It's not something I enjoy, I've certainly been in the position where I have been working somewhere and I've been interrupted by the loud braying of an older gentleman talking about his antics on a Saturday night. I mean we've all been there. Nobody enjoys that. But I'd still say that the introduction of female-only workplaces isn't not a solution. I think what is a better solution is making the current situation, the workplaces that we have better environments, and working on sort of creating either some rules, or some code of ethics or, and I don't really have the answer as to how it's done. But there's all sorts of things that can be done to promote women in workplaces and also address the chauvinistic environment. I don’t think it needs to be done with the segregation of women basically, and it kind of reminded me this whole thing of something that was happening in London. And bear with me but there was I think a rise of sexual crime on the tube. And so there was a voice rising to say that we should have female only spaces. Female only carriages. But the obvious backlash, which I agree with, says if we do that we just push women into safe spaces. We put them in again in the role of being the vulnerable party, and I just I just think again this is very like what's happening with female only workplaces. I think we can celebrate and support women without segregating them.”

But what about the women who love female-only spaces, who’ve come from a workplace full of men? They love how relaxed they are compared to a testosterone-filled office, or they love how the place is designed with women in mind, with chairs designed for our bodies, rooms that let us primp if we want to before going to a meeting or just going out for dinner. It feels like a nice change. 

“I’m sure it is a nice change from somewhere like a lawyer's office. Certainly I work in finance so I've experienced more than my fair share of male dominated spaces. I think what would be the most positive outcome of all is the fact that maybe we're going to see a rise in lawyers’ offices, financial institutions, really thinking about the design of their spaces and whether they are catering for women who you know want to have a hairdryer in the washroom and want to have a big mirror so they can they can get ready for an event and make sure they can see everything they're wearing, you know all the kind of stuff that these spaces are providing are important. So it would be a lovely thing if we see a shift in the way buildings and office spaces are designed…”

To accommodate more women workers. But for now, these women-only spaces are fairly few in number, even if they are popping up in more and more cities. And they cater to non-traditional workers to begin with. It’s questionable whether anything that happens there will translate to a corporate workplace.

Finally, I asked Amy, does she see these female spaces that don’t allow men in…as discriminating against men? The Wing’s policy is something the New York City Commission on Human Rights has been looking into.

“I think it is discriminating against men. Although I'm not going to be walking down the street protesting anytime soon, because I feel that it's probably about time that men came across some friction in the workplace, to be to be frank. Ultimately I wouldn't like to see these spaces banned. I don't think there's any point in going down that road. I think the better thing to do would be that workspaces that are male-dominated learnt from some of the practices that are going on in places like The Wing, and make their spaces more inclusive.”

After Amy and I spoke, I asked the same question of Leigh Stringer.

AM-T: “What do you think of the flip side of this…the point of view of, oh my gosh, if men went off and started male-only workspaces, women would be up in arms. This is discriminatory.”

“Well the truth is that they still do have male-only spaces. And you know all kinds of institutions… or maybe they don't advertise it. But they still are. It's funny, I was having a conversation just last week with one of the parents in my kid's class and he is he's gay and he works for the Department of Defense, and he was at Hooters.”

For non-US listeners Hooters is a restaurant chain where scantily clad waitresses are a trademark.

“You know, his team wanted to meet at Hooters, and he's like what's the point of that kind of thing for him? But you know, it was all guys. And that's where they chose to go. And I think even if it's not officially a club, that happens in the workplace even when, I mean this was like two months ago, right? So I think that this need for escape or this need to be in an all- female place, there are just not nearly as many of them as there still are male-only institutions or other sorts of environments that just put you out of your comfort zone.”

And why shouldn’t women have a comfort zone of their own, if they want one? I’d love to try one of these spaces myself.

And Leigh says we shouldn’t underestimate the role harassment and assault play in some women’s decision to work with other women. She writes a lot about the workplace environment. She wondered what the post-Harvey-Weinstein world might mean for the layout of workplaces.

“I was really curious obviously about #MeToo. I was like you know, there's a lot of discussion about policy and HR policy but what about the physical workplace. You know, are there ways that we can create an environment that helps victims of trauma feel better. But also, anyone who's suffered from sexual harassment and other sorts of traumatic events, what does that look like? And a lot of them when they describe them, the benefits, when I talk to experts and those who've counseled a lot of women, a lot of what they said was having a choice about where you go. Having a place that's maybe more open which, I found The Wing and some of the other spaces like it much more open, and not having a predator in the room with you is actually the most helpful sometimes for being productive at work. And so you know these third party or these environments that are only women, there are some just fight or flight responses that are eased and are lowered when people are in them. And I think we need to be respectful of that.”

Leigh Stringer. Thanks to her, Amy Rowe and Mallory Kasdan for being my guests on this show.

As ever, I am curious about what you think. Are you a freelancer or an entrepreneur or anyone else who loves the idea of a female only workspace? Or like Amy Rowe, does it seem backwards to you? I’d love to hear from you. You can post beneath this episode at TheBroadExperience.com, or tweet me at ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen – or post on the show’s Facebook page.

And I’ll include a photo or two related to this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

You know all those credits you hear at the end of other podcasts? You won’t hear that here, because it is just me who produces this show from start to finish. If you can support this one-woman production with a donation of any amount, it would be much appreciated. Head over to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com. And if you can’t, write a review on iTunes instead – I’d love that too.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.