Never before has the climate between the sexes been this hot — and not in a Netflix-and-chill kind of way. Since the explosion of movements like Lean In, Me Too and Time’s Up, more women are seeking male-free environments where everything is tailored to a feminine (and mostly feminist) agenda, from networking to working out.
But are these spaces further creating a divide between the sexes by discriminating against men and therefore violating human rights laws, or are they merely giving women a chance to catch up and chill out?
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In the U.S., the perspective skews toward the former. This week, the New York City Commission on Human Rights opened a “commission-initiated investigation” into the practices of The Wing, a women-only private social club and working co-space that operates in New York and Washington, D.C. The investigation will examine whether The Wing is in violation of the city’s human rights law that forbids any business from discriminating against a customer based on their gender.
It’s a move that’s garnering a lot of controversy, not the least of which is because of the irony of it all. As Melissa Murray, a law professor at U.C. Berkeley pointed out to Jezebel, as the news is increasingly filled with allegations of sexual harassment perpetrated by men in the workplace, how could a safe space where women can conduct business without the threat of harassment be seen as discriminatory?
“Leaving aside the fact that so many workplaces seem to be rife with incidents of sexual harassment, now, after #MeToo, I think there are a lot of men in positions of authority who are going to be really skeptical and afraid to mentor women and that might make a space like this even more necessary,” she said.
In Canada, legality doesn’t come into play. According to the Ontario Human Rights Code, special interest organizations can limit their right of membership “where membership or participation in a religious, philanthropic, educational, fraternal or social institution or organization that is primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by a prohibited ground of discrimination, is restricted to persons who are similarly identified.”
Similarly, the Canadian Human Rights Code defines special programs as “the idea that in the pursuit of equality it may be necessary to treat individuals or groups differently in order to establish ‘substantive equality.’ Special programs must be designed and administered to ensure that this objective is always paramount.”
Women-only clubs will argue that women have long been denied equality and therefore are entitled to a male-free space where they can work to establish that equality.
In fact, places like this could serve to “bridge the divide,” says Dr. Rashmee Singh, an assistant professor in the department of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo.
“The basis of is that there’s an acknowledgement that everyone in society is not born with the equal opportunity to succeed. Society isn’t on a level playing field. As such, we have to treat certain groups differently to ensure those left behind have some extra support.”
Mary Aitken, a former investment banker in Toronto, can attest to the feeling of being left behind in a male-dominated field, which is why she established the private women-only Verity club in 2004.
“I experienced what you hear from so many sources today — that there isn’t a lot of parity out there. Many women aren’t getting promoted to senior positions or getting access to the C-Suite, and the missing part is the network,” she says.
“I used to see the guys go off and the deal would be done, and I would miss out on it. You can have all the education, but without the network, you can’t advance.”
Aitken also recalls visiting places like Toronto’s York Club (which only opened its doors to female members in the 1990s) and being made to feel like she was a “tradesperson being shown in the back door.”
“I’ve attended men’s clubs and had to go in the side entrance and take the elevator to the second floor.”
There are few men-only clubs left in the country, although those that remain are adamant about their membership policy.
“It would be silly not to recognize that men’s-only things are a little delicate. But the fact of the matter is that there’s a role in our society for single-sex environments,” Clive Caldwell, president of Toronto’s men-only Cambridge Club, said to Metro in 2015.
The interview came on the heels of the club being “stormed” by then-Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland after the Conservatives cancelled a sold-out engagement at the club.
“This finance minister who refuses to speak to the House of Commons, who is unavailable to the press, had a plan to give a private meeting in a private club and talk about the Canadian economy there,” she said at the time. “It just makes it worse that the private venue he was intending to speak at is a men’s-only club.”
In January, Jodi Moskal, an electrician and former chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, took to social media to express her outrage over the fact that the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club continues to restrict membership to men only, and women are only permitted access if accompanied by a male member like a husband or father.
“I shouldn’t have to be tied to my husband. I shouldn’t have to have a husband. What if I had a wife? What if I was single?” she said to The Canadian Press.
But men could use the same argument in being denied access to women’s spaces — although they might not be successful.
In a 2007 case brought to the BC Human Rights Tribunal, a male complainant who cited discrimination in being barred access to the Just Ladies women-only gym, was found to “not suffer a disadvantage that warranted the protection of the Human Rights Code.” The tribunal went on to say that it did not “affect his human dignity or his goal to be fit.”
Experts say that this distinction is of particular importance when explaining the need for women-only spaces.
“To understand why we don’t look at women-only spaces through the same lens as men-only clubs, you have to look through a lens of history and privilege,” says Keetha Mercer, manager of community initiatives at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“Some men’s clubs may act as a way for the establishment to maintain power and keep things the way they are by locking out any new or dissenting voices. That doesn’t bode well for reaching a gender-equal society.”
It’s the inherent power imbalance between men and women that persists today, despite the advancements that women have made in the last several decades, that often inspires these spaces.
“Women-only clubs are not forming from a position of already achieving power. They’re seen as a way to bring women up to where men are,” Singh says. “It’s the substantive equality approach that examines where we are in society, in a broader context. Many would call it false equivalency that men and women are the same, and it’s why men’s clubs are called into question.”
It’s also why women-only clubs may be more necessary now than ever before.
“I don’t understand how has suddenly made women’s clubs politically incorrect,” Aitken says. “I think it’s more correct than ever. We need to keep making advancements and to prepare ourselves to best earn those rights in the boardroom and the C-Suite, and that’s what we’re doing here.”
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