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Do we really need women-only spaces in 2017?

Women-only spaces are on the rise. And it's no coincidence that they're more popular than ever in the current political climate, says Clare Thorp

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By Clare Thorp on

 

A new club opened recently in New York called The Wing. Achingly exclusive, you have to be a member to get through its doors. Which is hard, because there’s a capacity of 300 — and a waiting list of several thousand. Before it even launched last October, it already had 20,000 Instagram followers (that’s since climbed to nearly 70,000). Despite the £1,800 a year price tag, it's probably the hardest place in Manhattan to get into right now. And, if you’re a man, it’s impossible. Because The Wing is a strictly women-only zone. 

Set up by New York twentysomethings Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan, the “home base and social club” was “born out of the belief that women need and deserve a multi-purpose space designed to make their lives easier, and that magic is created when women gather together".

It's some space, too. The sofas are salmon pink, the walls mint green, the furniture bespoke and and expensive-looking. There’s a beauty room, blow-dry area and showers filled with Aesop products. The library is stacked with books by female writers, from Virginia Woolf to Danielle Steel. It’s a Pinterest board come to life. New York Magazine — just one of the dozens of publications to cover its opening — described it as “millennial meets Suffragette".

Gelman once worked for Hillary Clinton and is a close friend of Lena Dunham — a founding member of the club, along with author Sloane Crosley, Rookie co-founder Tavi Gevinson, J.Crew president Jenna Lyons, Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine and media mogul Tina Brown. It’s less women-only than overachieving-women-only. 

No wonder it has caused such excitement. But, while The Wing might be grabbing all the headlines, it's part of bigger story happening at the moment — a rise of female-only spaces opening up across US cities and now here, too. 

The timing doesn’t feel accidental. The Wing opened just before the US election, but Gelman has cited “Donald Trump’s unique history of misogyny” as one of the reasons her venture and others like it are so vital right now. 

The idea of same-sex spaces isn’t a new one, even for women. In the 19th century, as gentlemen’s clubs soared in popularity, women responded with their own take and female-only clubs popped up all over London. One of them, The University Women’s Club — started in 1886 for those who have “achieved experience and distinction in her field” — is still going strong in Mayfair today.

But, while all-female work spaces can foster networks, confidence and ideas, in the real world women have to work alongside men. So, is it really helpful to exclude them?

Most social clubs gradually fell out of favour though and, instead, women found other ways to carve out a space for themselves. Women’s media — whether magazines, websites or newspaper sections — allowed honest conversations about sex, periods and motherhood, while addressing issues like equal pay otherwise skimmed over by mainstream press. More recently, private Facebook groups allow frank discussion without the fear of online abuse. (Pantsuit Nation, a secret FB group for Hillary Clinton supporters, reached a staggering three million members last year). 

But, now, there seems to be a desire for something more — a return to bricks-and-mortar spaces where women can meet, work, talk, network together, away from men. 

Lola Hoad is the brains behind Brighton-based collective One Girl Band, a community of female entrepreneurs and creatives who regularly meet and support each other’s ventures. Next month, she’s taking it a step further and opening a physical co-working space.

“It’s a base for women to feel comfortable, supported and empowered,” she explains. “They need a chance to move their businesses out of their homes, off their kitchen tables and to see others like them in the same boat, to quench any feelings of self-doubt or comparison they are feeling.”

Why make it women-only, though? “I feel empowered and confident when I leave a room that is filled with amazing badass women who are doing their own thing and that’s what I’ve set out to recreate,” she explains. “I’ve met women who feel that, even if a place is mixed, it’s still quite male-dominated, and they can feel intimidated by the male office culture. My mission definitely isn’t to ‘ban’ all men or never ever let a guy through our doors; it's more about creating a space where women feel they can be 100 per cent themselves.”

Elsewhere, Diana Horner has just opened She Can co-working space for women in Newhaven, East Sussex. “The women I am hoping to bring together have entrepreneurial characteristics, but lack the eco-system they need to be brave and try things,” she says. “If I can cultivate a co-working space where these women come into contact with role models who are already running businesses, great things can happen.”

There is evidence women benefit from same-sex spaces in ways men don’t. Pupils at all-girls schools perform significantly better than those at mixed schools, whereas the difference in performance at all-boys schools is less pronounced. The reasoning is that girls feel more able to voice their ideas when boys aren’t around, and grow in confidence as a result. 

But, while all-female work spaces can foster networks, confidence and ideas, in the real world women have to work alongside men. So, is it really helpful to exclude them?

The Women’s Organisation, a Liverpool-based charity which provides support and training to women in business, opened their office block, 54 St James Street, six years ago. It’s not female-only, but female-focused, with 80 per cent of the businesses based there owned by women. “We had independent research done and it showed that spaces that were gender focused — not necessarily gender specific — had a real impact both in number of businesses started, but also in the performance of those businesses,” says CEO Maggie O’Carroll. “So it’s a women-focused space, but not a women-only space, because women employ men, men employ women — business is business. Our mission is to try and redress the balance and get more women to start and grow businesses.”

Women were the focus even at the design stage, too. “The whole office has been laid out with safety and security in mind,” says Maggie. That means decent security lighting, wide hallways and lots of light, open space — rather than dark corners. The toilets are spacious, with plenty of baby-changing facilities. Instead of air con (great for men in suits, but rarely a woman’s friend), there’s a natural cooling system. There are also plenty of communal spaces to hang out and network with other business owners. “But there’s no pink involved – not a sign of it,” says Maggie.

Make-up artist Ruth Marcella runs her training academy, Ella Creative, from the building. “The best part is the visibility,” she says. “To see other women already doing what you’re trying to do — that’s really benefited me.” She calls it an “optimistic” space that feels different to other, more male-dominated workplaces. “For most of the time I’ve been a self-employed business owner, I’ve had young children. I’ve worked in certain offices or dynamics where I’ve felt being open about having a young family would hold me back, so I’ve had to put on a mask and hide my role as a mother, because I haven’t wanted men to judge me and think I’m not committed or up to the job. 

“To try and be something you’re not is quite tiring. There isn’t the pressure here to feel you have to act or be a certain way to be a woman in business. It’s very much an atmosphere where you can flourish and be yourself.” 

Women who experience everyday sexism know the relief that can come with being away from the male gaze, even for an hour or two — whether at a women-only swim session or a girls' night in at a friend’s house

But what if the motivation behind a female-only space isn’t so positive? What if the purpose of a space isn’t to create opportunity, but to prevent something darker, like violence?

Last month, Air India announced they were creating a women-only section on domestic flights, designating two rows in economy to solo female passengers. They denied it was a result of several reported incidents of groping — but said their female solo passengers often request to be seated next to another woman.

Still, it comes after countries including Brazil, Germany, Japan, Egypt, Mexico, Thailand and Iran have all introduced female-only spaces on public transport — often in response to specific attacks, and with various degrees of success. 

When Jeremy Corbyn suggested the idea of introducing women-only train carriages in the UK two years ago, he was met with much ridicule. Liz Kendall said it was “an admission of defeat". Yvette Cooper asked, “Why should we have to shut ourselves away to stay safe?” Corbyn’s idea was a response to the alarming increase in sexual harassment on public transport (recorded sexual offences rose 25 per cent in 2015 to record levels). But is gender segregation a sensible solution? Rachel Krys, co-director of End Violence Against Women, doesn’t think so.

“You can understand where the idea is coming from,” she says. “But what it's really saying is that violence is inevitable, there’s nothing we can do to stop it, so we have to create a special zone where women can be free and everywhere else is dangerous. What about the women who aren’t in that space? If there’s a women-only carriage on a train and a woman isn’t in there, is she then more culpable if she experiences harassment or assault?

“It brings into play the idea that this is inevitable and there's nothing we can do about it, when what we need to do is reduce the sexual harassment and violence that women experience in public spaces. We can’t put women in a bubble and hope they’ll be safer.”

Last year, Glastonbury introduced a female-only area at the festival for the first time, called The Sisterhood. The organisers said “women-only spaces are necessary in a world that is still run by, and designed to benefit, mainly men". At festivals, where line-ups are often dominated by male acts, and a growing number of women are reporting sexual harassment and rape, it felt like a bold move. But, again, women shouldn’t need a safe space at festivals — they should feel safe there anyway. And that’s where the issue with women-only spaces lies. 

Women who experience everyday sexism know the relief that can come with being away from the male gaze, even for an hour or two — whether at a women-only swim session or a girls' night in at a friend’s house. Where you know there will be no catcalling or uncomfortable stares, or you won’t need to fight to get your voice heard. But, of course, it shouldn’t have to be that way. 

There are many positive reasons women should come together. If we choose to use same-sex spaces to network, share ideas and lift each other up in our careers and lives, that’s one thing. When we feel like we have to use them in order to avoid something else, that’s a whole other matter.

@thorpers

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