Women-Only Member's Clubs: Sexist And Elitist Or A Way For Women To Get Ahead?

Kyra Hanson
By Kyra Hanson Last edited 22 months ago
Women-Only Member's Clubs: Sexist And Elitist Or A Way For Women To Get Ahead?
Allbright founders Debbie Woscow and Anna Jones. © Tim Bishop/ Allbright

In 1883 The University Club for Ladies (later renamed the University Women's Club) opened its doors to the business-savvy women of Victorian London. Now, more than a century later, women are once again carving a space out for themselves to counter the old boy's network.

After weaving past the bag-laden Oxford Street crowds, we duck down a quiet side street where we find Allbright, a new women-only members club on an ambitious mission to make the UK the best place to be a working woman.   

In Mary Beard's Women & Power A Manifesto, she writes about how women, especially in politics have traditionally worn "regulation trouser suits" and lowered their voice to fit in with a masculine ideal of power.

Allbright throws all that out the window. Inside the walls have been painted motherly shades of mauve and dove grey with soft furnishings galore. It's inviting and feminine and has attracted Oscar-winning actress Naomie Harris, Lastminute.com co-founder Martha Lane-Fox and fashion designer Mary Katrantzou, as well as a waiting list running into the thousands.

Each floor of the five-storey Georgian townhouse is named after a member of the Bloomsbury set and women have had a hand in everything from the food — from Social Pantry — to the art on the walls and the soap in the loos.

Allbright has a beauty bar and fitness centre in the basement, a prosecco bar on the top floor and a waiting list running into the thousands. © Dave Benett/Getty Images

We sat down with the impeccably dressed Debbie Wosskow, 42, ex-CEO of the home swapping business Love Home Swap (which she sold last year for £43m) and co-founder of Allbright. She begins by reeling off a couple of alarming stats. Wosskow is someone who doesn't fluff her numbers.

"I came from a family of very strong entrepreneurial women. Yet in my industry, the stats for women founding businesses and being funded are all pretty dire. Female entrepreneurs receive less than 3% of all venture capital funding. One in ten women say they want to start their own business but don’t."

Allbright takes a three-pronged approach to tackling the current equalities. An academy was set up to plug the skills shortage, a fund was launched "because women need to invest in women more", and a private member's club opened because "70% of the people who applied said they did so to build their own network," she says.

To date, it has invested in eight female-led businesses, including Tech Will Save Us, a tech-based toy company and healthy crisp brand Well and Truly.

Guests at the VIP launch included Sky News presenter Sarah-Jane Mee (far left) and actor Naomie Harris (second from right). © Dave Benett/Getty Images

During the club's opening week, which coincided with International Women's Day we sat in on a panel discussion made up of senior Stylist staff and host and Allbright co-founder Anna Jones.

After clinking glasses with Gwendoline Alderton, a gregarious 51-year-old from Saint Albans, she told us member's clubs have given her access to crucial legal and business advice, as well as the emotional support you get from a close-knit group of girlfriends.

"My clients are 98% women so it’s important for me to mix with other women. The women have similar personalities and it’s a lovely place to catch up with friends for lunch or my hubby for drinks after work," she adds.

The basement beauty bar. © Dave Benett/Getty Images

Wosskow says women network differently in women-only environments, and it was uplifting to see this in action.

When questions were fired at the audience there wasn't the usual awkward silence followed by the sound of a man's voice. Women shared stories, exchanged compliments and fished out business cards from their purses.

Experiencing the uninterrupted flow of female chatter felt like a pretty big deal when you consider how the gender gap in public speaking even extends to social media — where men are more likely to be retweeted than women.

Cocktails are inspired by the Bloomsbury set and wine comes from female-run vineyards.

Allbright isn't alone in taking on the testosterone-fuelled business world. Alderton, who runs her own interior design business also belongs to Sister Snog, a business-focused women-only member's club. Blooms, We Heart Mondays and the swanky Grace Belgravia all currently operate women-only workspaces in London.

And The Wing, a New York-based co-working space for high-achieving, high-earning women recently announced a new branch in the capital.

However, The Wing has recently come under fire for being sexist. It's currently under investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Its crime? Barring men from the premises.

© Dave Benett/Getty Images

Wosskow insists Allbright is not anti-men: "We think it’s really important that men are allowed in the building. We have men in our company and we have male investors, so it wouldn’t make sense to not let men in."

Unlike The Wing, male guests can be signed in by a guest (though are banned from the basement where the showers are). At a time when books such as Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace make the bestseller list, safer spaces for women should be an aspiration rather than the subject of scrutiny.

However, if they are to be scrutinised then surely the issue shouldn't be with the men who can get in but the women who can't.

"A woman must have money & a room of her own" - Virginia Woolf © Kyra Hanson

The joy of listening to Allbright's all-female panel was dampened by it being an all-white panel speaking from the same privileged social status.  

Many of the ladies on the panel and in the audience, by their own admission, rely on a combination of paid for childcare, cleaners or supportive husbands to keep their careers afloat. Currently, Allbright doesn't cater for working mums who need creche-like facilities but says it's something they'll look into with future openings.

"It’s a complicated thing, trying to create an ecosystem but also aspiring to have a club with a waiting list and how you deal with that.

"There’s a 16 person membership committee which is very diverse, in terms of age, race and sector. So that’s quite important in allowing us access to different networks." And Wosskow points to the price which she says is less than a gym membership and discounted for under 27s.

Allbright's aims are admirable but at £50 per month (plus a £300 joining fee), it has spawned a sisterhood not everyone can afford.

Women-only member's clubs have been depicted as a way for working women to get ahead but if you can afford a private membership then the likelihood is you're already ahead, while the working-class women who might benefit from its perks are likely to fall further behind.

Back among the panel, the whiff of expensive perfume just about masks the smell of freshly painted walls. It's the stench of exclusivity which a private members club, by its very definition, can't shake.

Last Updated 25 April 2018