Is a women-only workspace discriminatory? The Wing instates formal membership policy

Update: This story has been updated to include further context from The Wing. The company said it had begun developing a formal membership policy in the spring of 2018, based on member and community feedback. The policy clarifies that members of The Wing “express their gender in a variety of ways.”

The Wing, a private networking community and workspace designed for women, has instituted formal membership guidelines, stating on its website that it “is a diverse community open to all.”

After its founding in 2016, The Wing quickly expanded from a single New York City outpost to five locations across the country. A San Francisco branch opened in late 2018. Its mission is “the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community” and expanding “prosperity for womankind,” the website says.

Some people have argued that the company’s women-focused emphasis excludes trans people and those who identify as non-binary. Proponents of the women-focused format said it helped foster community and prevent harassment. Some of The Wing’s decor, a company podcast and branded merchandise cheekily say “No Man’s Land.”

In 2017, the New York City Commission on Human Rights opened a “commission-initiated investigation” into the company’s operations for possible violations of the city’s Human Rights Laws, Jezebel reported. The law forbids businesses, including most private clubs, from discriminating against customers based on gender.

Following feedback from members and the community, The Wing began discussing clarifying its membership guidelines, according to an email sent to members on Friday by Gelman and co-founder Lauren Kassan.

“With a growing number of members who identify as transgender or beyond the gender binary, we want to make sure that we are as inclusive a community as possible,” the email said. “We’re committed to advancing a feminist ethos that is inclusive of those who align with our mission, including women and people of marginalized genders.”

The email said the company had adopted written membership policies to ensure staff are properly trained to not “make assumptions about someone’s identity based on how they present, or to ask prospective members or guests to self-identify.” It also hopes to “actively incorporate the perspective of trans and non-binary members into our offerings” by hosting talks and events and changing pronouns on some of its company emails from “she” to “they.”

“While The Wing will always be a space designed for women with a women’s-focused mission, you may see folks at The Wing who express their gender in a variety of ways,” the email stated.

In August 2018, 53-year-old James Pietrangelo filed a lawsuit, seeking damages of up to $12 million, against The Wing for allegedly discriminating against him because of his gender and possibly defying the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act of 1977. Business Insider first reported the lawsuit on Monday.

In a complaint, Pietrangelo said he applied to Washington D.C. branch of The Wing in June 2018 by submitting a short online application. The complaint also said Pietrangelo had spoken with two employees from The Wing. The first employee said Pietrangelo “would automatically be denied membership because he is a man,” according to the complaint. The second allegedly said The Wing would permanently defer his application, “thus never granting his application for membership.”

In a motion to dismiss the case, attorneys for The Wing argued Pietrangelo “failed to identify any demonstrable action he has taken, or even any interest he has, in empowering and advancing women — i.e., the primary criteria for membership.” The attorneys also argued membership to the community is highly competitive and said Pietrangelo’s application had not, in fact, been denied but was still being processed.

Pietrangelo has a history of filing lawsuits against local business. He has sued a deli, a skatepark and other entities, according to court documents and media reports. He could not be reached for comment.

The September response to Pietrangelo’s complaint also stated the company had instituted a “newly adopted” membership policy, which the company said had not existed prior to August 2018. Before then, “The Wing’s practice was to admit as members only women and non-binary individuals,” the document said.

On August 30, 2018, the company’s board of directors approved its “first formal, written membership policy,” per the complaint response, that states “all applicants will be evaluated based on their commitment to The Wing’s mission, regardless of their perceived gender identity.” The policy went into effect on September 24, 2018. Members were notified by email on Friday.

The court case did not influence the company’s decision to instate a formal membership policy, a spokesperson for The Wing clarified, as internal discussions had begun months before the suit was filed.

The Wing raised $75 million in venture capital in December and about $117 million in total since its 2016 founding. The company opened an 8,000-square-foot space at 115 Sansome Street in October.

“Even now we hear from a lot of women in tech and venture in San Francisco who feel like they are not in the rooms where decisions get made, and I think our message is like, let’s create new rooms,” Gelman told The Chronicle during an October walk-thru of the new space. 

Read Michelle Robertson’s latest stories and send her news tips at mrobertson@sfchronicle.com.

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This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/the-wing-women-only-discrimination-lawsuit-policy-13521222.php.

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