The co-founder of a new women-only private members’ club to which men are only admitted as guests has insisted that its establishment “isn’t anti-men”, but is necessary to help women in business smash the glass ceiling.
The AllBright, which claims to be the first club of its kind in the UK for working women, is due to open in Bloomsbury, central London, in February next year.
TV presenter Kate Thornton, actor Kathy Burke and Margot James MP will be among the founding members, and those behind it – female-focused entrepreneurial network AllBright – say it is part of their mission to make the UK “the best place to be a female leader”.
Set inside a five-storey Georgian townhouse in Rathbone Place, it will offer co-working spaces, meeting rooms, a library and space for working women from various sectors to collaborate, network and socialise a “powder room” where members can have blow-dries and visit the beauty bar, a wellness centre aimed for people to meditate and relax, and a programme of debates, exhibitions and networking meet-ups.
However, the aspect that really makes it stand out is the fact that only women can be members, with men allowed to visit solely as their guests.
Men-only clubs have existed for centuries. One of the oldest gentlemen’s clubs, The Garrick Club, which was founded in Covent Garden in 1831, welcomes only “distinguished actors and men of letters in England” and claims “that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted”. To this day, only men can be members, though women may visit as their guests. Despite there being a number of ballots to change the membership rules to allow women, the most recent of which was in 2015, the club remains men-only.
And while a women-only establishment could be seen as going a small way to redressing this historical imbalance, discrimination on grounds of gender on either side could perhaps equally be argued as running counter to efforts being made towards equality in recent years.
However, AllBright co-founder Debbie Wosskow OBE insisted to The Independent that “this isn’t an anti-men move”.
“We have men as investors and fantastic men in our team. It’s about levelling the playing field in the way that single-sex schools have been arguing their case for years,” she said.
“Because sometimes women need to be separate to turbocharge their progress. The UK still isn’t a great place to be a woman in business. There is huge gender imbalance in the world of investing and in the number of women in leadership roles. We need to drastically change the economic landscape for women.”
Anna Jones, a fellow co-founder – and former CEO of magazine publisher Hearst – added: “Quite often when you have a mixed environment, men tend to dominate discussions and women tend to hold back. In a female environment, women are more likely to speak up, share experiences, talk about their successes, and be a bit more open and honest about some of the challenges that they face.”
She added that the recent workplace harassment issues that have recently come to light are yet another reason that women “may feel more comfortable” in single-gender spaces.
While there are female-only clubs for women from specific job sectors and ladies’ lunch clubs, the AllBright claims to be the first to open its doors for professional women from all industries.
Ms Wosskow, who also set up house sharing company LoveHomeSwap, added: “One in ten UK women say they want to start their own business. If just a fifth of them were given the support to embrace entrepreneurship, our economy would benefit from a £10.1bn boost, 340,000 new businesses and 425,000 new jobs by the end of 2020.”
Founder members of The AllBright include MOBO Awards founder Kanya King, David Beckham’s fitness instructor Shona Vertue, founder of lastminute.com Martha Lane-Fox, and Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah Brown.
A number of female actors have also signed up including Naomie Harris of Skyfall fame, Ruth Wilson from The Affair and Luther, and Kathy Burke who is known for her starring role as a teenage misfit in Kevin and Perry Go Large.
The venture’s location and design is inspired by Bloomsbury-based author Virginia Woolf and the progressive values she was known for.
The group already runs the AllBright Academy, which provides mentoring for women who are setting up their own businesses, and the AllBright fund, which provides financial support for female entrepreneurs.
The club has applied for a licence to serve alcohol until 11.30pm on weekdays, and until midnight on Friday, Saturday and on International Women’s Day.
The Metropolitan Police have objected to the application, over fears it could add to “policing problems in an already demanding area”. It will be decided by a Westminster council licensing committee on Thursday.