‘Here we don’t have to hide our ambition’: the rise of the women-only workspace

It’s a drizzly, cold evening in January. The steps outside 11 Rathbone Place, a five-storey Georgian townhouse just off London’s Oxford Street, are covered in brick dust and the door – nondescript, black, chipped – has electrical tape stuck to it. A slogan plastered across the huge front windows paraphrases Virginia Woolf: “A woman must have money and a room of her own.” I press the bell, which looks broken; there’s silence followed by laughter and a clatter. The door flies open, and there stands Debbie Wosskow clad head to toe in red sequins. “Come in!” she grins, a human glitterball in the midst of a building site. “And welcome to the AllBright Club!” This “hard hat tour” is obviously a far more glamorous affair than I’ve dressed for.

Wosskow (a 42-year-old entrepreneur who sold her company, Love Home Swap, last summer for £40m) and her business partner Anna Jones (41-year-old ex-CEO of the magazine publisher Hearst) have been furiously busy since late last year, when they announced plans to open a women-only private members’ club. Tonight they will host a party for 150 of the 400 founder members – Wosskow calls them women “of all ages and all stages” – who were chosen by a panel to ensure a diversity of professions, ages, ethnicities and experience. Seventy per cent of applicants said their reason for wanting to join was “building their network of other women”. The AllBright has already attracted actors Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson, Mobo awards founder Kanya King, Martha Lane Fox, Sarah Brown and women from business, politics, media, business and fashion; Wosskow and Jones’s goal is a total membership of 1,000, paying £50 a month.

“The name comes from that amazing Madeleine Albright quote,” says Wosskow. “You know the one: ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’ Those words really resonate with Anna and me.”

The club is undecorated and devoid of furniture – it won’t open officially for two months – but the scale of their ambition is clear. “All the rooms are named after Bloomsbury feminists,” says Wosskow. “We just had to, because of the area’s links to women like Virginia Woolf. The interiors will be inspired by that time, too.”

The AllBright Club.



The AllBright Club. Photograph: Ben Quinton for the Guardian

From the art on the walls to the hand wash in the toilets, the AllBright will champion female talent and female-led businesses, Wosskow explains. Beth Greenacre (who curated David Bowie’s art collection) will be selecting work by British female artists for the club. As well as places to hold meetings, work stations, a blow-dry bar, a yoga studio and a bar and kitchen, there will be talks, exhibitions, debates and networking events.

It is not unique in its aims. In London alone, women-only centres include the We Heart Mondays co-working and community space; the Sorority, which counts presenter Katie Derham and film-maker Gurinder Chadha among its members; and the well-to-do Grace Belgravia.

So why now?

“The data speaks for itself,” Wosskow says. “In 2016, only 2.17% of all capital raised went to female-led businesses. Only one in six people in senior leadership positions within corporations are female. One in 10 women say they want to start their own business – but they don’t. Why is that? When people accuse clubs like ours of sexism, I let the stats do the talking. When women have 50/50 representation, then we’ll hang up our stilettos.”

Jones cites another motivation: research by management consultants McKinsey & Co. “We know that women get better qualifications than men when they come out of education,” she says, “and this research showed that when women arrive in the workplace, 50% say they have ambition. Within two years, however, that’s dropped to 16% and their confidence has halved. So we have got some big issues that we feel we need to talk about.”

Issues, perhaps, like a 2016 report by the TUC that showed half of all British women have been harassed at work. Or the study released last year that found that one in four women in UK workplaces have had their appearance commented upon by a colleague, compared with just one in nine men.

“We see this space as being part of a movement,” says Wosskow. “We are ambitious because the scale of change that needs to happen for women in the workplace is great. And if we can help women build networks, skills and confidence they can deploy outside this building, then we believe we can do that.” She points to the AllBright Academy, which runs business courses in London and Manchester, aiming to give students the practical skills they need to advance their careers.

Naomie Harris says the reasons she joined the AllBright were as much personal as political. She cites girlfriends who have run their own businesses for years but don’t know how to take it to the next level, and her mother. “She was a single parent. She decided she was going to leave her job in the Post Office and start a career as a writer, and she did that entirely on her own, without any guidance or support. It was incredibly challenging. So I thought of her and what she would have needed, and how it would have been so beneficial for her to have had an organisation like this, where she could share her ideas and experiences with other women. These spaces were always needed, but it’s just now being recognised.”

It’s a mission shared by the Wing, another private club for women (publisher Tavi Gevinson and Glossier entrepreneur Emily Weiss are members), whose first branch is in the shadow of the Flatiron building in Manhattan. Founded in 2016 by Audrey Gelman – a former press aide for Hillary Clinton and longtime best friend of Lena Dunham – and businesswoman Lauren Kassan (both in their early 30s), the Wing now has a waiting list of 8,000. Questions for prospective members include, “If you were to have dinner with three renowned women, who would they be?” (Gelman’s answer is: journalist Tina Brown, author Fran Lebowitz and actor Rosie Perez).

Lauren Kassan and Audrey Gelman, founders of the Wing.



Lauren Kassan (left) and Audrey Gelman, founders of the Wing. Photograph: Tory Williams

With several branches in New York and Washington, the pair have plans to open on the west coast of the US this year, and then expand into the UK and Europe. “The Wing was opened three weeks before the election, when we had a really different belief about where the country was headed politically. Then everything changed,” says Gelman. “I’m from a political background and didn’t want to assume that our women were looking for politically motivated events at the Wing, or that our members were necessarily interested in the things I’m interested in – but they really were.

“That’s meant the activities are so much more than just people turning up, plugging in their phones or switching on their computer and working on their own things. There’s a real interest in political activism at a grassroots level and actually being the change, which is so encouraging.”

The Wing, New York.



The Wing, New York. Photograph: Tory Williams

The obvious drawback to all these clubs, however, is also their selling point: exclusivity. While both the Wing and the AllBright say they manage their membership to encourage a “diversity of professions, ages, races and social status” (as Gelman puts it), hand-picking women of either high status or potential excludes the women who may most need help. How likely is it, really, that the woman with a great idea who works on the supermarket checkout to make ends meet will benefit from such a place?

But Gelman believes the Wing is inclusive, and cites having a number of transgender members such as Chelsea Manning and the model Hari Nef as proof. Both women are, of course, hardly below the radar. When I ask who her members are, she explains that she “aims not to have an easy answer to that question”. “Most of them love the eclectic backgrounds of women in the club,” she says. “Say we host a breakfast for women from a certain area of New York – we may have a teacher sitting next to a doctor, sitting next to a local politician. To both me and our members, the most interesting rooms are the most varied rooms.”

But with membership at the Wing costing $215 (£150) a month, women have to be wealthy to even apply.

Inclusivity has also been preying on the minds of Wosskow and Jones. “We’ve made 10 bursary memberships, which we will award to selected candidates from different industries,” says Wosskow. “We’ve also kept the pricing of the club affordable at £50 a month, which is less than a gym membership. We want to make it accessible to young women, so we have a discounted rate for under-27s. We just want women in there who are going to get a lot out of it.”

Layla Rivelino, 30, opened We Heart Mondays in east London in November 2017, with Andre Sinclair, 29. With a background in events and social media, Rivelino says she wanted to create an affordable space (monthly membership starts at £25 and you can cancel at any time) for the people she most enjoyed working with throughout her career – women.

Naomie Harris



Naomie Harris. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian

“I wanted to provide somewhere that brings women together, where they won’t be judged, where they can network with each other and have as much fun as possible,” she says. “Our members come from the creative industries – bloggers, photographers, freelance journalists, PR people, a few who run startups. It’s a good mix.”

She believes that single-sex working environments are more productive and have a better atmosphere. “Women who come into our space feel more comfortable. They know that certain things that can occur within a mixed office won’t occur here. The whole idea of having a ‘safe space’ has really become a talking point only recently, but it’s long been needed.”

Lourdes Avila Uribe is a freelance writer based in New York, and a member of the Wing. The 33-year-old says joining the club has been life-changing for her, not only because it means she has somewhere to work, but because she gets to meet other people who share the same values. A fan of the club’s monthly women’s history classes, she also praises its Wing Woman speed-dating nights, film festival and cooking classes.

“Women in this city were really looking for a safe space to be themselves,” Uribe says. “Not having men there makes a huge difference. You don’t realise the tension of living your day-to-day life until you are in a space without them. You feel that lift.

“I don’t have to be guarded now, don’t have to listen to men talking all the time. I didn’t realise how much I had craved this until I joined the Wing. It’s so professionally inspiring to be around women with a great work ethic, and it’s bonding not to have to hide your ambitions. It’s hilarious to me when men bitch and moan about women having a few places like this when the whole world is their safe space. The fact some think we can’t have just one spot is laughable.”

Gelman agrees that completely men-free space changes the dynamic. “Women really let their guard down,” she says. “They say they can focus more easily. This idea of all-female spaces being like a catfight is a media invention. Women-only spaces are environments of mutual support, not competition. We have members who wear the hijab, and in here they can remove it because there are no men present. The other day I saw a woman who was pumping [expressing breast milk] while on a conference call and getting her hair done. This is a space where women can do what they need to do.”

***

Back in Rathbone Place, the AllBright’s Hard Hat cocktail party is in full swing. Wosskow and Jones are determined that their spaces will be “fun places to hang out and have a drink” as well as to learn and network. If tonight is any indication, they’ve already got that sussed. I’ve rarely seen so many stylish women in one place.

I strike up a conversation with a woman in her early 30s who has come alone. An international banker, she is overjoyed at having made it through the selection process, because the AllBright will provide her with somewhere to entertain her growing crop of female investors. “Until now,” she says, “there’s been really nowhere for me to take them.”

The AllBright, however, does allow men in the club, providing they are the guest of a female member, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. Surely allowing men in any capacity will jeopardise their USP?

But Wosskow says that the club is “not anti-men”. “We have male investors in our business and men on our advisory board, and there are great, supportive and open men in our world who understand things need to change and are willing to put their money where their mouths are,” she says.

Martha Lane Fox



Martha Lane Fox. Photograph: Richard Saker/REX Shutterstock

“We did a talk in Manchester recently,” says Jones, “and a guy stood up in the Q&A session and said he has two daughters in their teens and asked, ‘How soon do you think you can fix this situation?’ I answered honestly: I think it is going to take a long time. But we’ve just got to start bringing men like him with us on our mission. We have got good friends 10 or 20 years older than us and they say working environments are not much better now than they were when they started in their careers. It’s depressing.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Lane Fox, who made her name with an internet startup 20 years ago. “I keep thinking back to when we founded Lastminute.com and it just feels like another world,” she says, recalling a trip last year to the Women’s March in Washington DC. “There was an older woman there holding a placard that said: ‘I can’t believe I still have to deal with this shit.’ I’ve only been working 25 years and I feel like that. But it is interesting how rapidly things have unravelled – or, depending on your point of view – begun to clarify, as always, led by the slightly outlying example of Hollywood.”

If the AllBright is anything to go by, they’re in with a chance. Wosskow and Jones aim to open four sites by the end of 2019, elsewhere in the UK and beyond.

How does Harris respond to the criticism that clubs like hers are sexist? She laughs. “So many boardrooms are men-only, yet women have to deal with that every day of our working lives. Women need our own spaces to galvanise ourselves, to get back into the workplace in a powerful way and to redress the balance. Ultimately, having single-sex spaces is not a future that any of us really want – we don’t want any form of segregation – but it seems we desperately need that. For now at least.”

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Carrie Gracie: fearless leader of battle for equal pay at the BBC

At the height of the expenses scandal in 2009, a little-known BBC news presenter made the headlines by revealing her £92,000-a-year salary on air and getting into a public spat. Carrie Gracie told a Labour peer that, unlike the MPs charging for “chandeliers and manure”, she never even claimed for telephone calls “because I understand what public service is about”.

Gracie returned to the headlines last week when she resigned as China editor and accused her employer of illegal pay discrimination. A dispute simmering since last summer, when publication of BBC pay scales first revealed how few of the best-paid stars were women, boiled over and led to days of outrage and mockery over the BBC and its treatment of women.

In an interview for the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, Gracie explained that she had turned down a £45,000 pay increase that would have taken her overall pay to £180,000, but left it below that of two male international editors, the US editor, Jon Sopel, and the Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen.

“I didn’t want more money – do you understand – I wanted equality,” she said. Support was immediate and widespread: within hours, #istandwithcarrie was trending on Twitter, with women including Clare Balding and Gabby Logan tweeting their support.

The row has been painful for the BBC, exposing deep divisions among some of its best-known staff and evoking memories of the Savile scandal when its failure to act became symbolic of wider social injustice. In raising issues of inequality and fairness, Gracie has put the BBC at the heart of two of the defining issues of our age.

Former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, won an ageism case against the corporation.



Former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, won an ageism case against the corporation. Photograph: Andrew Fox for the Observer

Miriam O’Reilly, the former BBC presenter who took the corporation to court for ageism and won, said the reaction proved that dissent was now much more widespread: “I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like it; the reaction has been incredible.”

Political reaction has been swift, too. The newly appointed culture secretary, Matt Hancock, warned the BBC that “much more action is needed”, while the parliamentary select committee called on Gracie and the BBC director general, Tony Hall, to give evidence this week. The committee is expected to hear from some of the more than 200 women who have lodged grievance procedures against the BBC over pay disputes.

After an award-winning 30-year career at the BBC, Gracie is conscious of the criticism about the highly paid women leading the charge for equality. In her letter announcing her decision, she wrote: “Many of the women affected are not highly paid ‘stars’ but hard-working producers on modest salaries. Often, women from ethnic minorities suffer wider pay gaps than the rest.”

Jane Bradley, a former BBC journalist who now works for Buzzfeed, reflected the distaste many felt when a leaked recording of a conversation between John Humphrys, the BBC’s highest-paid news presenter, and Sopel showed him making light of the issue. “Hilarious banter from Humphrys who earns £600k a year whilst (female) friends of mine work overnight shifts to produce the programme on £38k.” One BBC news employee said: “This affects so many women of all ages, grades and ethnicities and in every kind of job. Carrie has a lot of support.”

The issue of equal pay is not entirely straightforward, however, with complexities and contradictions everywhere apparent in a system in which pay relates to the individual and not necessarily the job. Gracie pointed out the illogicality in the fact that her pay as a returning BBC News presenter of £145,000 “will be paid more for sitting in warm studio than hurtling round country of 1.4 billion 24/7. Strange.” With a wage boosted by her stint in Beijing, she will presumably be paid more than some of her colleagues doing exactly the same job.

The BBC would be breaking the law if it attempted to cut the wages of its male employees; instead, it needs to encourage them to take a pay cut voluntarily. Humphrys is one of the few to have gone public with his own decision to take a £120,000 cut, which still leaves him earning roughly four times the prime ministerial wage for working 15 hours a week on the Today programme and presenting Mastermind.

Amid rumours that Huw Edwards and Chris Evans were both being encouraged to think about how much they are paid, one senior BBC editor said: “I think the men will have to give up the money. They [the BBC] can’t force them, but they can just make it so uncomfortable for them.”

Some observers argue that there is a distinction between covering the US, which is on the main news programmes all the time, and the newer beat of China, with its surveillance and other hardships. In an interview during a period of long-service leave to supervise her children’s A-level exams, Gracie spoke of these difficulties: “I find it a hard environment, very punishing, the pollution, congestion, travelling, intensity of surveillance, difficult ethical issues.” Yet some at the BBC point out that Bowen, who has worked as a war correspondent for much of his career and whose driver was killed by Israeli mortar fire in 2000, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

One editor suggested it was typical of Gracie to stir things up. Another said: “She is very direct, good fun and a good person, but maybe quite naive, definitely idealistic.”

The daughter of an oil executive and born in Bahrain, Gracie joined the BBC as a trainee producer in 1987 after going to both Edinburgh and then Oxford universities, where she graduated with a first-class degree in philosophy, politics and economics.

She was Beijing correspondent from 1991 until 1995 and fitted in an MA in design for interactive media as well as a degree in Mandarin. She first moved back to the UK in 1999 because her young daughter was ill. In 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer but returned to work as soon as she could.

Her former husband, the Chinese rock musician Jin helped to look after their two children, now 21 and 19, while Gracie spent half the year in China. Her frequent trips home to London included her first stint as a Today programme presenter last summer.

John Humphry was recorded joking with Jon Sopel about Grace’s resignation.



John Humphry was recorded joking with Jon Sopel about Grace’s resignation. Composite: Rex

During her 30 years at the BBC, there have been several pay scandals. In 2009, when Gracie was disclosing her salary, Jonathan Ross was on a £16.9m three-year contract and the deputy director general Mark Byford was about to be given £1m to leave the BBC. Greater disclosure and a squeeze on public finances have conspired to change the culture so that such high pay at a public broadcaster is distasteful.

Full disclosure of all those earning more than £150,000 a year was only agreed in the last charter settlement and the BBC has announced plans to cut £80m from its news budget. The pay deals of men from the earlier era now look outdated. “This is a hangover from the age when money was thrown around to stop people getting poached,” said one BBC News insider. “Now there’s a sense that £300,000 is quite a lot of money for a nice job which lots of people want to do.”

Some blame the former director general John Birt, who is credited with making the BBC more competitive in the 1990s but also for introducing market-based reforms. “This should mean the BBC gets back to the pre-Birt era, before these people were treated like stars, not journalists,” said one insider. Several mentioned the fact that the BBC’s status as a trusted news source, still watched by millions, was worth a pay cut. “If it’s money you need, the BBC is not the place,” said a supporter of BBC women. “If public service and a good living wage is, then please stay.”

The BBC’s handling of the crisis has attracted a huge amount of criticism. From its initial statement that its pay was “fair”, to its decision to stop any presenter who had ever expressed any support for equality from reporting on the issue, BBC management appeared surprised by a turn of events it must have known about for weeks.

It took Fran Unsworth, the newly appointed first female head of news, more than 24 hours after the story broke to send an email to all staff: “Pay is an issue that we need to resolve swiftly and get right. This is a priority not just for me, but for the entire BBC.”

Its continuing insistence that an independent audit of on-air presenters would be published within a few weeks did little to assuage the doubts of those who refused to believe last year’s report of rank-and-file staff, which found “no systemic discrimination”.

As so often in the past, the BBC finds itself, often unwillingly, at the forefront of changes demanded by society. From April, all larger employers will be legally obliged to publish their pay for men and women.

Given the insults traded over the past week, it is perhaps surprising that Gracie and O’Reilly ended the week on a positive note. Tweeting after her last shift for Today, Gracie said that although the week had been a “bit W1A, referring to the BBC comedy: “What other news organisation would let you call it secretive and illegal on #equalpay, + still let you front flagship show? Despite troubles, #BBC IS GREAT.”

O’Reilly, who now campaigns against ageism and sexism, said times had changed since she quit the BBC a year after her successful court case because of “humiliating” treatment. “This is an opportunity now, not just for BBC women but for all women. If you can show that you can stand up to being treated unequally to men, women will benefit all around the country.”

THE GRACIE FILE

Born Carrie Gracie in 1962 in Bahrain, where her father was working as an oil executive; raised in Scotland. Degrees from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford. Before entering journalism she taught in China. Two children with Chinese rock musician Jin.

Best of times She was appointed BBC News’ first editor for China in 2013.

Worst of times Quite possibly the current furore over equal pay at the BBC. Though she appears to be handling matters with wit and grace.

What she says “I would not wish to be remembered forever as the woman who complained about money.”

What they say “A farce. The BBC could pay its female Today presenters equally if it retired John Humphrys.” – Ben Bradshaw