As new UK club The Allbright opens its doors, Stylist explores the growing trend for all-female networking spaces.
Today, the five-storey Georgian townhouse in London’s Fitzrovia is full of men. They are up ladders painting the cornicing; they are cleaning the tiles in the basement changing room next to the Pilates studio; they are taking photographs of the newly delivered velvet sofas and yet-to-be-used meeting spaces. By tomorrow the gender balance in this building will look quite different. The Allbright, a new members’ club for women, is just a day away from its launch party. The fresh flowers have been delivered but the stair carpet still has a layer of plastic over the top, protecting the cream-coloured pile from tracked-in dirt and errant paint splashes. It feels exciting, like being backstage at a theatre before the curtain rises.
“It’s not about being anti-men,” co-founder and entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow tells me. “Men are welcome as guests, but only women can be members. We wanted a space that prioritised women and female needs.” She and her co-founder, former CEO Anna Jones, are part of a growing movement: female-focused spaces are appearing all over the world.
The most high-profile example is New York’s The Wing, set up by Audrey Gelman, a former political powerhouse and friend to Lena Dunham, and her co-founder Lauren Kassan, who worked at the fitness start-up ClassPass. Launched in October 2016 in the city’s Flatiron district, The Wing has since opened a second space in New York’s Soho and is soon to expand to Brooklyn and Washington DC. Dunham is a member, as is Emily Weiss, CEO of beauty favourite Glossier, and the writer Tavi Gevinson. No men are allowed in, even as staff.
In Toronto, Verity, founded by entrepreneur Mary Aitken, is a space that includes a fitness suite and spa with meeting rooms and boutique hotel rooms; former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell is a member. In LA, Paper Dolls offers a co-working space for female entrepreneurs, while back in London Grace Belgravia provides a health-focused space for women. Even in Paris, a city stereotypically averse to separating men and women, the My Little Paris group set up Mona, a free female-only co-working pop-up, for three months last year.
On the rise
But why are these members- only women’s clubs popular right now? “I think it’s really encouraging they exist,” says Harriet Minter, journalist and presenter of Talk Radio’s Badass Women’s Hour. “I’m not anti all-male spaces, but I think it’s important we also have places where women are setting the terms of engagement. Historically we haven’t had that, especially in a business context, so it’s great that now we’re enough of a force to deserve and create that space.” Marilyn Davidson is an emerita professor of work psychology at Manchester Business School. “I was one of the first in the UK to study female networking groups,” she says. “Thirty years ago, many of these groups sprang up. Then what I tended to find was that they became less popular over the last 15 years or so. I think it was assumed we didn’t need them any more, and that we might be positioning ourselves as inferior by not joining more general networking groups. But we’ve come full circle.”
The most recent data, taken in 2017, shows that only 19% of people in senior management positions around the world were women; in 2016 21% were women. “In my personal opinion, women have looked at the world and thought, ‘The equality we were promised, it hasn’t happened’,” says Davidson. “So there’s been more of a feeling of women needing to get together, of needing support.” The spaces also provide inspiration via talks and events put on to nurture their members – over the next few weeks, The Allbright will host events from a finance talk with secretary of state for justice Liz Truss to ‘Eating for a Living’ with Jasmine Hemsley.
Many of the new work-focused spaces have also incorporated elements of a previous bastion of feminine space: the beauty parlour.
The Wing was supposedly set up when Gelman vowed she’d never get changed in a Starbucks toilet ever again. Likewise, The Allbright’s powder room is an acknowledgment that women often need to present themselves in a certain way in a professional context. These issues aren’t as superficial as they may first seem. “High heels may not seem important,” says Davidson. “But women often need to wear them to appear smart and it’s the difference between being able to walk to a meeting and not, or having to carry a bag with another pair of shoes and finding a place to change once you arrive.”
And it’s acknowledging these problems that makes all-female spaces important. “It can be isolating, being one of the few women in a certain position,” says Davidson. “It’s very important to share common issues that may not otherwise be raised.” There’s also space to be heard about more general topics: “Language studies have shown that men interrupt more often, take more speaking time.” This also ties into studies conducted around single-sex education: girls from all-girl schools are more likely to appear confident and take calculated risks. “The complicated thing to solve is confidence,” says Debbie Wosskow. “We wanted to bring that support and encouragement to this building, to have a space where we could start to solve that.”
Nonetheless, women’s clubs and networks can be prone to some of the problems that plague more traditional, male-focused spaces. Women are just as guilty of gatekeeping as men. During the course of her research, Davidson has spoken to several younger women who felt excluded from professional women’s networks because they held more junior positions or earned less. “Women shouldn’t mirror the worst of the wider world,” she says. “We need to act as role models, as mentors, to focus on bringing up other women.” Inclusion of trans women is also an important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Wing showed it was a safe space for all women when it was revealed that trans model Hari Nef was an early member.
It’s also true that complete gender segregation isn’t desirable. “Currently men do hold the balance of power in the world,” says Minter. “We would be losing out on a lot of opportunities if we weren’t engaging with that. But, at the same time, I still feel we need a space that’s just for us. In an all-female space everyone understands certain things, certain common experiences. Even if we disagree, even if we have different ideas, that base level of understanding is there.” The Allbright’s Anna Jones agrees. “Look, women are in spaces with men every day,” she says. “And [men] are more than welcome to come here as guests, as husbands, brothers, colleagues, friends. But the programming of our events and the design of this building is tailored to women. We are unashamedly focused on our female members.” There are currently 300 members, with enough of a waiting list for the founders to be scouting out a second venue.
Back in The Allbright’s townhouse, the protective coverings have been removed and the launch party is in full swing. Naomie Harris, in a pale pink trouser suit, chats with a group. Tara Fitzgerald lets someone past on the stairs. Designer Mary Katrantzou surveys a room. The five floors are full of women, many of whom have chosen to wear bold dresses that don’t often get an outing. They are chatting, greeting old friends and, most importantly, making connections.
Membership to the Allbright is £750 a year (£675 if you’re under 27) plus a joining fee of £300.