Elitist or Empowering? Inside the Women-Only Private Members’ Clubs

A room of one’s own

One street back from the hubbub of Oxford Street is a Georgian townhouse with a Virginia Woolf quote in its window. Step over the threshold and the geometric patterned, pastel-furnished interior is an Instagrammer’s dream come true. Experimental canvases by female artists adorn muted-blue walls, marble fireplaces meet matte-wooden floorboards and a hot-desking space is filled almost entirely by women. Tapping on laptops or gathered in brainstorm circles, they are nearly all in their 30s, impeccably dressed and blow-dried and manicured to perfection from the in-house salon.

Welcome to The AllBright: a private members’ club created for and by women.

Elitism to empowerment

While The AllBright may feel startlingly modern, women’s private members clubs actually date back to the 19th century. The University Women’s Club, which still exists today, was opened in 1886 by some of the first women holding university degrees, in defiance of exclusive gentlemen’s club culture, which was (and still is) big business among London’s aristocratic and political elite.

Decisions with country-wide ramifications have long been made over Old Fashioneds between the wood-panelled walls of White’s and The Garrick Club, despite a wave of female-welcoming members’ clubs, such as The Groucho, opening from the 1980s onwards. Fast forward a decade or two and corduroys and cigars are replaced by slick interior design and MacBooks, at hip social clubs like Soho House and the Hospital Club. 

Their female-centric offshoots serve a different need, having sprung up in the midst of an unprecedented conversation about gendered injustice in the workplace. The AllBright was conceived by its founders, Debbie Wosskow (founder of LoveHomeSwap) and Anna Jones (former CEO of Hearst), in the wake of #MeToo and the Presidents Club Scandal, which saw female hostesses sexually harassed at a men-only gala event. Their mission was two-fold: to create a space for fed-up women that mean business and turn boys’ club culture on its head. 

Having opened on International Women’s Day in 2018, The AllBright already has a valuation of £100 million. As well as providing a positive working environment for women in business and the arts, they regularly host events at their Fitzrovia and Mayfair branches – typically with empowerment or educational themes.

Their success has coincided and intersected with the rise of cowork spaces spearheaded by WeWork, a 400,000 member-strong group that came to London in 2014. But while the free craft beer perks and millennial-friendly décor made WeWork’s fortune, it didn’t serve to disrupt the male-dominated culture of entrepreneurship in the capital – a culture observed by Lu Li, who in 2015 founded female-focused cowork and networking space Blooming Founders, in Shoreditch.

“I moved to London in 2012 and went to a ton of startup events, but they were full of guys,” Li remembers. “I’m from the corporate world and can deal with male-dominated environments, but is that really it?” She began her own meetup group for women entrepreneurs, which reached 1,000 members in less than a year. Li now runs events that are open to all but focus on facilitating business connections between female founders and investors. They take place surrounded by peace lilies and pastel-painted walls, in the serene, Nespresso-fuelled workspace at Blooming Founders.

“We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life”

It’s safe to say there’s a market for this.

The odds are stacked against female entrepreneurs: 70% of them are solo founders, yet for every £1 of venture capital invested in the UK, only 1p goes to female founders. Research consistently points to unconscious gender bias on investor panels holding businesswomen back and the importance of female mentors in shifting the balance.

Enter Sister Snog, a women-only members’ club that, rather than having a bricks-and-mortar base, holds regular lunches and breakfast meetings to facilitate business connections between members. 

“Women and men network in a different way,” claims co-founder Annie Brooks. “In the past, it was old boys’ clubs and networking with a warm glass of chardonnay and a canapé. But get the right kind of women together in a room and they create relationships, uplift each other and work well together.”

Talking to the members, dressed to the nines at Sister Snog’s classy monthly meetup at ME hotel on the Strand, it’s clear they agree – and are directly benefitting from it. “There’s less ego involved among women,” says property developer Claire Norwood. “Everyone within Sister Snog provided the services I needed to launch my business – head shots, website, marketing.”

One members’ club caters to millennial women that are equally interested in swapping stories of backpacking in South America as in building a career. “We’re not a physical club – we hold fashion events, trips abroad, meditation,” explains 28-year-old founder Jae Ruax, who worked on the committee for the Hospital Club before launching Fiena in 2016. “We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life.”

According to Ruax, this does lead to business endeavours, but as a consequence of the club’s social element. “Men have always had these networks, they go play golf and leave with new clients,” she says. “Women have to fight for projects and clients. So we’re turning that on its head.” Fiena offers members discounts at partner venues for a few months at a time, such as Fulham beach bar Neverland and cowork space Uncommon. It’s a modern, less-committal approach to membership.

No boys allowed?

With success comes criticism.

Female-focused clubs have come under fire for excluding men, despite the fact that The AllBright welcomes male guests, Blooming Founders is mixed gender and The Wing (a booming US club due to hit London this summer) is open to all (following a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a man last year). “This isn’t an anti-men move,” Wosskow told the Independent in 2017. “Sometimes women need to be separate to turbocharge their progress.”

It’s been argued, too, that there’s a certain elitism at work. Certainly the fees involved can be eye-watering. Sister Snog’s annual membership starts at £999, Fiena and The AllBright at £750. University Women’s Club fees start at £262, but applicants require a university degree or ‘similar’ and recommendations from two existing members to be considered. Sister Snog and Fiena are selective.

“We have a stringent application process and turn down about 40% of applicants,” says Ruax. As with Sister Snog, being accepted comes down to possessing values deemed in line with the club – but without vigorous criteria, it’s difficult to prove that bias doesn’t tinge the applications process.

Even if membership fees are the only barrier, it has been said that the women in greatest need of business help are financially excluded by default. “There should be something out there for everyone,” agrees Brooks. “And there are lots of free networking events. But to some people, club membership is expensive, while for others, it’s cost effective.”

Plus, within the greater landscape of coworking spaces in London, these clubs are relatively cheap – hot-desking at WeWork costs upwards of £200 per month, whereas desk space at Blooming Founders starts at £30. For Li, the power of women’s members’ clubs comes down to their business sense in addressing a clear gap in the market.

“The AllBright and The Wing aren’t helping all women, but neither am I,” she points out. “You have to pick the customer you are serving and create the best product for them. But we’re so nascent in this process [of addressing inequality]. There are so many things to come.”

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