Sunday 23 September 2018

Britain's first women-only private members' club opening in London to tackle sexism

Debbie Wosskow
Debbie Wosskow

Suzi Ring

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Madeleine Albright said to a fired-up Hillary Clinton rally in 2016.

The damnation threat that America’s first female Secretary of State issued in support of its third didn’t sway enough voters to stop another man from winning the White House - even one caught bragging about sexual assault. But Albright’s brand of feminism did inspire two enterprising women across the Atlantic to aim their activism at another kind of glass ceiling.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, serial entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow and former Hearst Magazines UK chief Anna Jones will open Britain’s first members-only club specifically for businesswomen. Named The AllBright after Albright, 80, but with an extra “l” to remove any ambiguity, the duo is seeking to turn old-boy sexism in London on its head just as the #MeToo movement shines fierce new light on workplace harassment worldwide.

“The zeitgeist is really with us,” Wosskow, who sold her home-swapping vacation service for £53 million last year, said in an interview at Bloomberg’s London office alongside Jones. “Everything from #MeToo through to the Presidents Club is surfacing these conversations, it’s now becoming a front-and-centre issue for business.”

The Presidents Club hosted an all-male charity gala last month that The Financial Times exposed where many of the 130 hostesses were “groped, sexually harassed and propositioned” after being ordered to wear skimpy outfits and matching underwear. She and Jones say they’re trying to build a progressive version of the real-world social networks that’ve helped chummy blokes get to the top of nearly every profession - and stay there - for centuries.

Unlike men’s clubs such as White’s, Brooks’s and Boodle’s, which have played “a significant role” in British history, women’s clubs have been largely derided as “hencoop hospitalities,” Anthony Lejeune wrote in his 1979 classic, The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London. And unlike those clubs, many of which are so privileged that just discussing business is frowned upon, every aspect of The AllBright is geared towards the commercial aspirations of its members, from marketing workshops and investor-matchmaking programmes to the decor.

Wood panelling and cigar lounges are out, beauty bars and “treatment” rooms to “recharge and meditate” are in, as is AllBright’s fitness hall. The club bills its whole space as an “oasis” for working women to “create, connect and collaborate.” 

Even the location Wosskow and Jones chose for the first of several planned outlets in the UK and beyond evokes their mission - Bloomsbury, a neighbourhood made famous by early feminist Virginia Woolf and other intellectuals who started gathering there before women first won the right to vote a century ago. Everything in the five-storey Georgian townhouse, from the wine to the hand soap, is supplied by women-led enterprises, they said. AllBright also took inspiration from The Wing in New York, a group of hip new women’s clubs started in 2016.

Read more: Dearbhail McDonald: Top businessmen groping hostesses proves we’re long way from equality

“I work in tech and I’m often the only woman in the room so want to meet cool, active women,” said Savina Velkova, 29, a product manager at Facebook who has joined the club. “I thought a place like this would give me exposure to other women in other industries to inspire me.”

The co-founders, both mothers of two, said 600 women from industries ranging from finance and science to art and sports have already joined and they have a waiting list. They charge a fee of £300 and then either £750 a year or £2,000 for three years.

Gender parity is the ultimate goal. Britain has had six queens and two female prime ministers, yet only seven FTSE 100 companies are run by women and as little as two per cent of all start-up capital goes to female entrepreneurs.

“The statistics are so, so, so far off the mark that we’re very unapologetic” about membership being women-only, Jones said.

That puts AllBright in the same camp as many of Britain’s famed men-only organisations, including The Garrick Club, the most recent to defeat a vote to admit women, in 2015. Club secretaries and spokeswomen for The Garrick, White’s, Brooks’s and Boodle’s all declined to comment, citing long-held secrecy policies.

One of the few women to join a traditional gentlemen’s club, the writer Victoria Glendinning, said her first instinct when The Athenaeum asked her to join in 2002 was to say no like her fellow invitee Julia Neuberger, a member of the House of Lords and the first woman rabbi to run a synagogue in the UK.

“I thought, why would I want to do that?” Glendinning, now 80, said in a telephone interview. “Then I thought, women like me have been banging on about glass ceilings forever and so how silly not to say yes.”

Independent News Service

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