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Can women-focused co-working spaces fix your professional woes?

Female-focused working spaces are promising comfort and community for women who have grown dissatisfied with traditional office environments.
Image: Group of people with two laptops at a meeting
Female-focused working spaces are promising comfort and community for women who have grown dissatisfied with traditional office environments.Getty Images

Are you reading this article in a freezing office, wrapped up in the sweater you keep on your desk chair and put on every morning? Or maybe you’re in a one-bedroom apartment, where you work remotely and have to remember to occasionally stand close to the window for a dose of Vitamin D? Have you just read your fifth “take” of the day on the #MeToo movement and are now wondering how long it will be before the guy who sits next you asks, “Am I even allowed to say hi to women anymore?”

If the answer to any of the above is “yes,” you might want to check out women-focused co-working spaces.

Companies like The Wing in New York, RISE Collaborative Workspace in St. Louis and L.A.-based start-up Quilt have recently become big attractions, promising comfort and community for women who have grown dissatisfied with traditional work environments. The experiences vary in terms of price, membership and amenities. But all operate under the belief that spaces predominantly geared toward women are necessary, especially in the era of #MeToo and President Trump.

“Women are connecting to their instincts and voice,” said Ashley Sumner, co-founder of Quilt. “We are a platform where women can come and openly express themselves.”

Quilt is unique in that it doesn’t offer a centralized workspace. Rather, its 1,000 or so members work for four-hour sessions out of each other’s homes,listed on Quilt’s site, similar to Airbnb. Sumner says members range in age from 21 to 67. And compared to other co-working spaces, it’s much more affordable; for $29 a month, members have unlimited access to Quilt’s gatherings, which include “learn” sessions, where women teach each other about everything from cryptocurrency to the cannabis industry, and “Coffee + Chats,” which are pretty much self-explanatory.

“I haven’t been to a ‘Coffee + Chat’ where a woman hasn’t cried,” said Sumner.

Nisha Chittal, engagement editor at Racked and member of The Wing, also spoke of the importance of collegiality and “sisterhood” in these times.

Unlike members’ clubs open to both men and women, Chittal says “The Wing has a really feminist bent and feminist mission. I like feeling part of that community, like everyone here cares about the same things.”

The Wing is on the high end of the pricing spectrum, costing members up to $250 a month for unlimited access to all its locations. (Currently there are two, with more on the way.) In addition to the workspace, decked out in millennial pink, The Wing offers members numerous amenities -- such as a library stocked with female-identifying authors, a lactation room and blowouts on demand. It also hosts events, including one last year featuring Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Recently, the company netted impressive investments. In the fall, it was reported that The Wing raised a $32 million Series B round of funding -- one of the biggest raised by women founders in recent memory, according to Forbes.

The announcement came a little over a month after the #MeToo hashtag went viral, unleashing a flood of revelations about workplace sexual harassment. Yet Audrey Gelman, The Wing’s founder and CEO, believes the company’s rapid growth has more to do with the general political climate, rather than one particular movement.

“I think #MeToo is definitely an outgrowth of something we saw beforehand, which was the Women’s March, the election of Donald Trump really leading women to link arms with one another and to make their voices heard,” said Gelman. “There’s been a drumbeat of things that are going on and current events in the news that have brought women closer together this year and made women more interested in being part of spaces that are just for them.”

Gelman says The Wing’s community is very diverse, consisting mainly of professional women between the ages of 25 and 50. Freelancers like to work there during the day, she said, but women with full-time jobs -- like Chittal -- are also drawn to the space for its after-work events, such as panel discussions, screenings and book clubs.

Nothing is for everyone, however, and The Wing is not without its critics. In a 2016 piece for CNBC, reporter Marguerite Ward spent a day working there. And while she enjoyed the experience, she said everything was a little too “pink and pricey” for her taste.

“The founders of The Wing welcome women of all backgrounds, including transgender women. That's awesome and important,” Ward wrote. “But the decor still feels kind of 1950s. And as a working woman who dislikes the 'pink tax,' I want little to do with that era.”

Some have chafed at the entire idea of women-only environments. In California, for example, several men’s rights activists have sued women’s groups for meeting without men, arguing they violate civil rights law that bans discrimination based on sex. At the New Women’s Space in Brooklyn, meanwhile, someone graffitied the door with the word “c**t.” The group put the word in the exact same handwriting on a $25 t-shirt, donating $5 of every sale to anti-sexual violence efforts.

Melissa Wong, co-founder of New Women Space, says that level of hostility is rare. If anything, some men -- who are welcome, despite the group's name and the fact that most people who come through the doors identify as women -- express confusion, she said.

“Sometimes, people come in and are like, ‘Wait, so, men can’t do something here? And why not?’ Just kind of asking questions about it,” Wong said. “It’s not that frequent. But it’s not non-existent.”

Many of these companies are not actually women-only, even though they were created by and for women. Sumner says if a man wanted to create a profile for himself on Quilt’s site, for example, he could. Same goes for RISE Collaborative Workspace; men can apply to be members, even though most of its community is made up of professional women between ages 40 and 50.

Adding men into the mix can be complicated, however. Stacy Taubman, founder and CEO of RISE Collaborative Workspace, says one of her male investors is currently a member and comes to the space frequently. Yet his presence makes a notable difference.

“I have learned a lot from my investor who is a member. And while I love him, he’s incredible, when he’s here and having lots of meetings with other men in the open collaborative space, it definitely changes the environment,” said Taubman. “We’re not anti-men, by any means. But how can we also create this warm, safe environment where women are comfortable and can let down that guard that we so often put up?”

It’s a question that’s also top of mind for Wong at New Women Space, which prizes inclusivity. The Brooklyn-based company is predominantly events-focused, although people can work there during the day for an optional $25 annual fee. Money comes in mainly by renting out the space, which is left as a blank canvas on purpose (nothing pink in sight). To accommodate a diverse community, rates are determined on a sliding scale based on income. If someone hosting an event makes less than $20,000, for example, they’re charged $50 an hour; if someone makes over $75,000, they’re charged $150 an hour.

Last year, Wong says the group rented out the space for 230 events, including yoga Capoeira sessions, finance workshops and performances. And while 100 percent of the programming has been led by people who identify as women or gender-nonconforming, Wong says she’s eager to have more events at the space aimed at men, especially in the #MeToo era.

“What if all freelancers only worked in women-only co-working spaces? What is that really going to do?” asked Wong on a recent afternoon, sun streaming in and the Talking Heads playing softly in the background. “I would not fault anyone for choosing to do that, but it seems like a lot of the education and openness and transparent conversation isn’t going to happen if it’s all separated out.”

Working on her laptop at the next communal desk, nonprofit director Jordan Somer echoed the sentiment.

“I understand the merit in having a space that is loud about being accepting to all people when clearly there are a lot of workplace environments that aren’t like that,” she said. “But I think we need to include men in the conversation. Otherwise we’re just going to be in our own echo chamber and no real change is going to be happening.”