According to a recent Global Coworking Survey, 1.7 million people will be using 19,000 coworking spaces around the world by the end of 2018, and 40 percent of those users will be women. Since the industry launched in the mid-2000s, coworking companies have marketed to predominantly young, single men and provided associated amenities such as pool tables, craft beer, and other lures that typically encourage male bonding. This strategy has begun to change as the number of women using coworking services is predicted to rise and as women continue to voice their need for safer workplaces. Several female-focused coworking companies such as Shecosystem, Paper Dolls, Bloom, Rise Collaborative Workspace and Hera Hub have opened multiple locations in North America and Europe. Women-centric workspaces offer what traditional coworking spaces do not: calm, spa-like interiors; child care; lending libraries featuring female authors and mentorship programs.
Hera Hub founder Felena Hanson, featured in the spring 2018 Development magaizne article “Women-centric Coworking Spaces” believes that women have been an overlooked demographic in coworking, and that female coworking spaces can “serve as business accelerators for women who value collaboration over competition, want expert advice and education to help grow their companies, and prefer networking among a community of like-minded professionals instead of going it alone.” Hera Hub’s Washington, D.C., location has more than 80 members and offers five membership levels ranging from $89 to $429 per month. Hera Hub accepts male members but estimates women comprise 95 percent of the membership.
However, The Wing, a high-end, female coworking company also with a location in Washington, D.C., is explicit in its desire to serve women only. It produces a quarterly magazine entitled, No Man’s Land and categorizes their 10 international coworking spaces as “covens.” This approach has possible legal ramifications as it denies access based on sex or gender identity. After opening in Manhattan a year and a half ago, the company recently came under investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights for possible discrimination violations. Similar organizations in Manhattan, such as women’s social clubs, permit men on the premises but The Wing does not; the same women’s social clubs employ men, but it is unclear if The Wing has any male employees. The company’s CEO downplayed the seriousness of the investigation and stood by its values and mission, stating that The Wing gives women “positive and safe space [in which] to thrive.”
Legal experts are divided on how The Wing will withstand discrimination charges. The answer may lie in not explicitly banning men, but by marketing to women and allowing for self-selection. Men, knowing of The Wing’s business plan, will most likely not join. Word choice is important as well — Hera Hub describes itself as “women-focused” rather than “women-exclusive.” To date, The Wing is the only female coworking space to be challenged on discrimination, but the issue may quietly fade rather than turn into a litmus test. Stephanie Franklin, director of policy and communications for the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights, stated the agency does not plan to investigate The Wing and observed, “D.C. is a place where people can start innovative projects and businesses … I think that it’s all a learning curve, and we’ll see how this pans out.”
NAIOP’s Vice President for Knowledge and Research Jennifer LeFurgy, Ph.D., directs knowledge and research activities and serves as the Editor in Chief of Development magazine.