The number of coworking spaces in Australia has increased by more than 300 per cent since 2013, and with that growth has come an increasing number of spaces for women.
Across Europe, Asia and the US, where coworking is more established, spaces such as The Wing – whose six women-only US offices include childcare, “lactation spaces” and “beauty rooms” – are dedicated to “the advancement of women through community”.
The “timely” movement for women’s work spaces is beginning here, said Sheree Rubinstein, chief executive of OneRoof, a Melbourne-based coworking space dedicated to “women-led” businesses.
Social movements such as #MeToo, discussions about gender equality and an increase in “women speaking out about the challenges they’ve faced in business” have been drivers, Ms Rubinstein said. But, predominantly women-led work spaces are “focused on fostering an environment that gives women-led businesses the greatest chance of success”.
OneRoof house, educate and support more than 85 female-led businesses – “whether that’s a female founder, co-founder, CEO, or they subscribe to our values in a very clear way,” said Ms Rubinstein –but does not exclude men.
“We’re exclusive in our values,” she said, “and, if you don’t stand for that there’s no point you being here. But not in terms of, ‘You’re a male so you can’t come in here’. Also, we don’t expect women to only run businesses that only hire women.”
The Powerhouse Collective, “a business development and community space”, is a women-only coworking space in Noosa.
After running her own business from home, founder Aimee Sherriff discovered that “with two little kids you crave other motivation and support from other business owners.”
In 2015, she established the Powerhouse Collective—“a gorgeous feminine space” with on-site childcare—“a huge incentive for women returning back to the workforce that are still breastfeeding and need to be close by to their bub,” she said. The women-led businesses it hosts collectively turned over $1.3 million in the past year.
Ms Sheriff said that “the rise of female [business] founders” was due, in part, “to expensive childcare and lack of flexibility in the workplace”.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics said that what women in business are seeking, “is the flexibility to accomplish goals on their own terms”.
Communities, such as OneRoof and the Powerhouse Collective, provide a range of flexible work arrangements, facilities, connections and education that can support women to do this. “We’re trying to solve a whole lot of challenges that we feel contributes to the gender gap in business and entrepreneurship,” Ms Rubinstein said.
Ms Sherriff said: “This is not only an office, it’s also where we gain support, collaboration and motivation.”
Earlier this year, it was reported that The Wing, the US women-only coworking company, was being investigated for sex discrimination. Could discrimination laws affect women-only spaces here?
In Australia, the federal Sex Discrimination Act (1984) forbids the discrimination of people “on the ground of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status…”. However, it also allows for “special measures for the purpose of achieving substantive equality between men and women.”
The American Civil Liberties Union argues that women’s coworking spaces are not discriminatory as they serve women – “the very group sex discrimination laws were designed to protect” – and that they “build networks and advance women’s access to power in fields from which they have traditionally been excluded”.
Ms Sherriff said of the Powerhouse Collective, “It’s actually never come up, nor been a problem. There was a need for this space and we created it. It wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the men’s shed, or female-only gyms.”
In response to the news they were being investigated, The Wing tweeted that “women deserve safe spaces in a male-dominated world”.
Recent research from the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 39 per cent of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past year, and that 79 per cent of that was committed by men.
However, so far here, it seems to be a desire to uplift women – not protect them – that is driving women’s coworking spaces.
Last year, Schoolhouse Studios, a coworking space for “creative practitioners and visual artists”, considered transitioning their Brunswick studios into a women-only space.
“The idea to create a space that really held up women, supported women in their creative pursuits, was pretty exciting,” said director Alice Glenn.
But, after holding focus groups, they made the difficult decision not to proceed. “We have a large queer community at Schoolhouse and we didn’t want to exclude anyone – trans people, people who are non-binary, cis-men who are marginalised due to disability – from the space,” she said.
Eventually, Ms Glenn said: “We decided that what made sense to us was to run a space where we engaged with people who were discussing and exploring feminist ideas in their work.”
Ms Rubinstein agreed that a non-exclusionary approach to the dialogue is vital: “We need men in the conversation. We need males to be involved, to support and to care and to ask questions, to be part of the discourse.”
The “family friendly” Powerhouse Collective “aren’t man-haters” said Ms Sheriff.
“A lot of dads will drop off and pick up their bubs, as mum is in back-to-back meetings” and “all our husbands support the space”.
OneRoof has men who work there simply “because they really want to be here, love what we stand for and love our values,” said Ms Rubinstein. Recently, she had several of them come to her and say, “We’re so proud to be here.”
This is an updated version of the story, originally published as Why women-only coworking spaces are still in their infancy in Australia.