Are Coworking Spaces Doing Enough To Support Women?

Anna Johansson

October 20, 2019

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Coworking spaces are a natural outgrowth of the gig economy, and of startup culture more broadly. In fact, the spaces have become so popular that even larger companies are using their facilities. Unfortunately, like so much else about entrepreneurship, coworking spaces can also be something of a boys' club. WeWork, one of the largest names in the field, was hit with a discrimination lawsuit in 2018, with the claimant describing an "entitled, frat-boy culture" that enabled sexual harassment and assault. Still, WeWork is just one among many companies offering coworking opportunities. Are the others any better?

Putting Women First?

Given WeWork's public problems, it's no surprise that women have sought out other options within the coworking space, and on the surface, the Wing is an appealing alternative. The Wing was designed specifically as a women's coworking space, with inspiration from the women's club movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. It is, however, much more expensive than other coworking spaces, which means only a certain class of high-earning women can afford to work there. Those just hoping to get a small business off the ground are already excluded from the networking opportunities the space offers, never mind the added degree of safety stemming from working in a women's space.

Let Women Lead

Rather than opting for a women-only coworking space, female entrepreneurs may do better to look for coworking spaces that let women lead within a diverse community, and coworking spaces should let that leadership set the tone. For example, Novel Coworking's Old Town/Alexandria location is managed by two women, which means that women working in the space can confidently approach management about any concerns they may be having. Having women in positions of leadership can also help foster respectful cultural norms and boundaries that men may feel empowered to ignore elsewhere.

The Importance Of Co-Ed Coworking

Though finding a community of women in tech is highly beneficial for those trying to find their way in the field, co-ed spaces that support women may ultimately be more valuable. After all, one of the primary reasons that entrepreneurs thrive in coworking spaces is that it allows them to create connections and collaborate with other professionals across a variety of fields and build new business contacts.

Women's coworking spaces undoubtedly encourage collaboration and networking. They do, however, inherently limit entrepreneurs' options, especially for those working in fields where women are already underrepresented. Close female mentorship can make a big difference in those fields, but so can having a male mentor or peer who is committed to working alongside you.

Striking A Balance

Along with encouraging women's leadership in coworking spaces, many have argued that the best development approach may be to develop women-focused co-ed spaces where female entrepreneurs are put first. This model relies on a system of alliances �" of putting people with shared interests and commitments together �" rather than sequestering women for the sake of safety or supposed empowerment. Women need opportunities to lead everywhere, not just when there aren't any men around, and such mixed, women-centered coworking spaces have the power to make that happen.

Like many other parts of today's entrepreneurial ecosystem, coworking spaces have a long way to go in terms of serving women as well as they serve men, but they are well on their way. The key is to continue thinking about coworking in terms of community and leadership rather than in terms of exclusivity. This will set some coworking operations apart and draw women leaders to their spaces.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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