Is a women-only workspace discriminatory? The Wing loosens membership policies after complaints

The Wing bills itself as a private networking community and workspace for women. At least it did, until a handful of entities accused the group of discriminatory practices. The company has since revised its membership admission guidelines, stating on its website that it “is a diverse community open to all.”

The mission of The Wing is “the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community” and expanding “prosperity for womankind,” the website says. The unofficial no-men rule has been espoused by The Wing’s decor, a company podcast and branded merchandise, among other places. Proponents of the women-only format said it helped foster community and prevent harassment.

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.

Some people have argued that the company’s women-only emphasis excludes trans people and those who identify as non-binary. 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.

Then 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.

The September response to Pietrangelo’s complaint also stipulated a “newly adopted” membership policy for The Wing, which the company claims 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, Business Insider reported.

The new policy seems to contradict earlier statements made by The Wing founder Gelman and spokespeople. Gelman told NBC News in May that members are “women, self-identifying women, trans women, and individuals who don’t identify of the gender binary. That is our membership policy.”

The Wing did not respond to requests for comment, nor SFGATE’s inquiries as to whether the new policy means men will be allowed membership. In a statement to Business Insider, the company said it had “adopted written membership policies to ensure that The Wing’s staff is trained not to make assumptions about someone’s identity based on how they present, or to ask prospective members or guests to self-identify.”

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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