Designing Co-working Spaces for Women

If you’re a Netizan like me, you’re probably aware that Uber made headlines last month as the latest tech giant embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. For those who aren’t, here's a quick refresher: former Uber engineer Susan Fowler bravely risked her reputation in an open letter last month in which she revealed the dark underbelly of Silicon Valley.

But Fowler’s letter should surprise no one. While it may be certainly more pronounced in traditionally testosterone- laden industries, there’s no denying that sexism and discrimination exist cross-sectorally and behind closed doors. The only difference this time is that Uber actually got caught doing it.

Sexism at the workplace doesn’t occur only in the depressing world of glass ceilings, in the disproportionate levels of C-level female executives worldwide or even in the widening gender pay scale. Although systemic in nature, sexism also exists on the day-to-day level of microaggressions and interactions in which women are belittled, patronized, and otherwise socialized to swallow their ideas in meeting rooms in order to give space to their male counterparts.

The fact that there’s now even a term for it is very telling. Mansplaining” captures the tendency of some men to “enlighten” those around them even if their opinion is undesired, or even when they have no knowledge whatsoever on the topic. As with all things intersectional, things get doubly hard and the stats are even more sobering if you’re a woman of color, who are often thought to be caught in a "double bind." 

As a feminist, my own personal observations from working two corporate jobs in Hong Kong has made me hyper-conscious towards the concept of (both physical and figurative) space. As Frankel describes in Nice Girls Don't get the Corner Office, observe a man walk into a conference room and watch as he postures and drapes himself across a chair (not to fear- they’ll be sure to make sure you know they’re in the room), directing energy inwards.

Look over at a woman’s body language, and although this may not always be the case (because they are many #bauswomen out there) five times out of ten she’s trying to make her body as compact as possible, deflecting attention away from herself, lest she be called “too assertive” or *gasp* even a “bitch.” Of course, there are many women who actively challenge these stereotypes, but even then, it's worthy to think about space.

Specifically, who controls space in the workplace? How is space used to further the agendas of different groups, and what are the ways in which space is used to retain and perpetuate power?

Obviously, a fully-fleshed out answer to this question would be way too ambitious of an undertaking for the purposes of this article. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to take a look at this question through the lens of a viable solution that has been put forth: the female-only co-working space. If we can have women-only public transit and flights, isn’t it also high time we have the same for woman’s entrepreneurial needs? 

In the U.S., the concept a female-only space was an idea as radical at the time of its conception as it was ingenious. These spaces allowed women to build their own culture and camaraderie” while also giving them a home base for political organization.  While men had their own gentlemen clubs, women had their 6000 — something women-only clubs, appropriately named the “Ladies’ Mile” because it was where women once walked on the street without a male escort.

By offering a safe haven of sorts away from men, these spaces historically allowed women to share ideas freely and synergistically without having to deal with the overbearing sense of male entitlement in the same room. 

The Wing is probably the most iconic of the bunch. Snug in New York City’s Manhattan’s Flatiron district in a location that happens to be as historically meaningful as it is trendy, The Wing bars men from entry, with a not- too- shabby $2.4 million in capital to quell any naysayers who think it’s all fun and games. The Wing has done remarkably well, boasting a cohort 250 women, while also garnering an impressive 45,000 followers on its Instagram account.

When my friend first told me about The Wing, I was quick to jump online to see what the fuss was about. What caught my eye from the Wall Street Journal were the lines "Open six days a week, the Wing's “usual programming includes a “hair-braiding workshop, a crossword class.”  If these events don't tickle your fancy, this space also contains “Barbie-like” room, “a lactation room, a clothes steamer, and a vast array of fancy creams.’” 

If reading this description of The Wing made you cringe slightly, know that you are not alone. While the importance of a lactation room and other services that cater to biological needs cannot be understated, the article’s emphasis on elements as frivolous as the color of the “Barbie décor” undercuts the very mission of the co-working space as an incubator of ideas. Perhaps this is a product of writer bias, but how radical can a space truly be when women don’t have other things to worry about other than the fancy cream they want to use and which hair-braiding tutorial to sign up for?

Admittedly, the fact that all the books in The Wing's library are written by women is something worth writing home about (pun intended). However, forgive me thinking of the typical white, ex-sorority, WASPY woman crocheting pussy hats as the first kind of clientele that comes to mind. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. The Wing is a brilliant idea. But for now, it seems to fall short of expectations by catering to a very specific type of New Yorker woman.  More specifically, the typical 20 or 30-year-old Brooklyn hipster- woman. As a Bloomberg article points out, "pretty much all of them look like they stepped out of an Urban Outfitters ad.”   

Currently, it seems as though the Wing still runs on elitism. Monthly dues of $185 is a hefty price to pay, and as a blogger reveals in her review of the space, “social standing and wealth is required.” The question of accessibility continues to loom large, as it seems to be more of network catered to the sensibilities of well-to-do successful women, rather than an up-and-coming bootstrapped entrepreneurs. 

At the end of the day, it's all a matter of relativism. How does this fare with other spaces?

Co-working spaces are on the rise, with the current figure of “7,800 co-working spaces worldwide projected to surge to 27,000 by 2018”  in a market research conducted by Statista. Alternative (more affordable places), which sometimes don't even charge a membership fee include the "SheWorks Collective, also in Manhattan; New Women Space, in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Hera Hub, in Phoenix, Southern California, Washington, D.C., and Stockholm." 

While women at the Wing are busy putting their entrepreneurial minds together over $12 dollar gluten-free quinoa bowls, equally interesting is how women in parts of the world outside of the U.S. are reclaiming spaces for themselves outside the private sector from areas as disparate as disrupting food services to disrupting the tech space (Girls who Code comes to mind). At Even Cargo,  the newly minted start-up in India offers delivery services for local e-commerce companies. Their edge? As a female–only operations, food is delivered solely by women on scooters, allowing them to reclaim public space. 

Similarly, in the “Why Loiter”?  campaigns which are seizing up India by a storm, women also deliberately loiter in parks and public areas in Karachi to “assert their right to take risks,” to make it okay to loiter without a purpose, just as men regularly do. 

The faces of woman’s empowerment are indeed varied, and the struggle is intersectional.  In my opinion, ease of accessibility should always be the first order of business when people design spaces (both physical and metaphysical) for women. 

One good sign that these co-working spaces are doing a good job? Designers are now paying attention to how women interact with space in experiments of "gender mainstreaming."  In "How to Design a City for Women," the city of Vienna explores this very concept. Women do hold up half the sky after all, so it's about time we start acting like they are.