For office fit out companies and other professionals involved in office space planning projects, the past few years has seen a dramatic rise in co-working spaces. According to Statista, the number of defined co-working spaces in the world is set to reach 19,000 over the course of the next year or so, based on current projections, and this would be twice as many as the number of co-working spaces that existed as recently as 2015.
Yet, within this broader trend for more co-working spaces, there has also been a recent increase in the number of co-working spaces that have been designed for use exclusively by women. In this article, we examine the rise of ‘women-only spaces’ and consider whether they are the next big thing for office design within the United Kingdom.
The Rise of Women-Only Spaces
Both co-working and women-only spaces have been increasing in prominence over the past decade, for a number of reasons. To date, however, most examples of co-working spaces aimed exclusively at women come from the United States. The Wing, in the Flatiron district of New York, was one of the first examples of this, offering an open plan, co-working space, which encourages collaboration and networking. A second location, in Soho, soon followed.
However, the trend has not been confined to the United States entirely. Earlier this year, a similar space, the AllBright, opened in London. Women are able to join the club associated with the building for £600 a year and the facilities are already being used by professional women for meetings and collaborative sessions.
One of the key advantages of women-only spaces is that it affords women a greater opportunity to express themselves and share ideas – something which does not always happen in shared spaces. This is partly because men outnumber women in many offices, and men greatly outnumber women in senior roles. In Britain, for example, there are more male FTSE 100 CEOs with the name “David” than there are female CEOs combined.
“Quite often, when you have a mixed environment, men tend to dominate discussions and women tend to hold back,” says Anna Jones, co-founder of the AllBright, speaking to Wired.co.uk. “In a female environment, women are more likely to speak up, share experiences, talk about their successes, and be a bit more open and honest…because frankly, it’s quite hard to be the only woman in the room.”
Putting Women’s Needs First
Supporters of the growing trend for co-working spaces created exclusively for women highlight the need for spaces that put women’s needs first. Indeed, office fit out companies in the United Kingdom are being asked to carry out work on more and more of these spaces, because there is a deep desire to re-address the balance within office environments, which have traditionally been dominated by men. However, the concept is not without its critics.
In fact, in some places, there have been questions raised about the legality of women-only co-working spaces and, in the case of The Wing in New York, the NY Human Rights Commission even launched an inquiry into the issue earlier this year, after concerns were raised that excluding men could violate anti-discrimination laws.
With that particular issue, The Wing’s owner has passionately defended the need for women-only spaces and has pointed out that those anti-discrimination laws were introduced to protect women. This sentiment is also shared by many of those involved with co-working spaces for women in the UK.
“It’s not about being anti-men,” explains Debbie Wosskow, the other co-founder of the AllBright, in a conversation with Anna Fielding from Stylist.co.uk. “Men are welcome as guests, but only women can be members. We wanted a space that prioritised women and female needs.”
The Challenges and Opportunities
Aside from the aforementioned issues around legality, there are several other challenges that could prevent women-only workspaces from becoming the next big thing. For example, one of the issues relates to gender politics – for instance, those who identify as female, but have not undergone any physical transition, or those who class themselves as non-binary. Most of the women-only workspaces that have opened so far accept them.
Making a co-working space available to women alone also potentially halves the number of people who will actually use it, which can impact upon revenue and the overall success of a venture. This has been put forward as one of the reasons why the idea of female co-working spaces has struggled to gain traction in parts of Asia.
Nevertheless, with the #MeToo movement highlighting the social issues women encounter in shared spaces, and with an increased awareness of the professional challenges that women face too, there is a clear demand for female only spaces. Moreover, such spaces also provide an opportunity to address those issues. As a result, it is likely that women only spaces will account for a greater number of office space planning projects moving forwards.
“A lot of women are really experiencing a world that, in many respects, was built by men, and, whether intentionally or not, for men,” says Liz Giel, co-founder of The Coven in Minnesota. “A part of it is just having a place where you can go and be yourself, and not have any of the pressure to act a certain way or look a certain way.”