It’s still pink. It’s still a balmy 72 degrees. But now it’s filled with men.
I’m talking, of course, about The Wing, the formerly girlboss-only coworking space with locations in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco that has gone through a quiet but irrevocable change following its controversial founder’s high-profile flame-out, the pressures of the pandemic on the coworking industry, and new ownership by a white cis male billionaire.
The Wing was founded in a preelection 2016 by Audrey Gelman, a political consultant and “it” girl, and Lauren Kassan, who came from the world of fitness startups and has always flown under the radar. The duo skillfully promoted their operation as a “social club”—yes, there were desks and Wi-Fi, but there were also spaces to change clothes, touch up your makeup with a complimentary spritz of Chanel No. 5, and meet for turmeric lattes without the burden of the male gaze. The couches were velvet, the phone booths were named for feminist icons such as Miss Frizzle, and there was a dizzying calendar of networking events, from author talks to floral arrangement classes. It was a “women’s utopia,” just as Gelman promised—at least for a certain privileged conception of womanhood.
The Wing was under the media microscope from its inception. It was treated as an example of the future of work (a communal office with a social mission) and a glittering window into corporate feminism. Gelman, who was the inspiration for the monstrously self-involved Marnie on childhood friend Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, seemed more than happy to lead by example. On election night in 2016, she welcomed the New York Times to The Wing’s ill-fated watch party, where Gelman floated around in a pink “Madam President” T-shirt, increasingly anxious as the night gave way to a Trump victory. In 2019, Gelman became the first “visibly pregnant CEO” to grace a business magazine cover. And then, in mid-2020, she became part of another trend: coworking CEO cancellation, following in the footsteps of WeWork founder (and The Wing investor) Adam Neumann. As the world hurtled into the pandemic, reporting confirmed that The Wing had mistreated its employees (employees of color in particular) and tolerated racism among its members. Many singled out Gelman as “particular and capricious.” Then again, many of The Wing’s policies seemed designed to foster exclusion: Members (who had to go through an application process and often languished on a wait list) were not allowed to bring in outside food. If they were hungry, there was avocado toast available for purchase.
And yet The Wing still has members. I know because I am one of them—and I’ve returned to the space despite the tumult.
What initially drew me to The Wing was its price. I first joined a coworking startup, in 2019, called Spacious, mostly because it was cheap ($149/month). It was exactly what I needed in a workspace: simple, quiet, and close to my house. But it wasn’t long until the whole enterprise was bought—and promptly closed—by WeWork. Our consolation prize? A meager discount on WeWork hot desks, which I recall running about $400/month in my area. Priced out, I tried a few other coworking options before settling on The Wing (back then, $250/month for access to all of its locations, or $2,700 for a yearlong membership) in February 2020. Paying four figures for a drop-in social club environment would be absurd—a truly feminist space would never have such a high price tag, a common criticism went—but in the grand scheme of NYC coworking options, The Wing was a relative steal (and, as a freelancer, a tax write-off). I went all day, almost every day.
That lasted about three weeks, before COVID-19 shut the whole world down. While I was trapped in my one-bedroom apartment with my partner, our knees knocking as we worked from opposite sides of our sole desk, The Wing was restructuring. The company dumped several locations. Gelman stepped down from her millennial-pink pedestal. (She acknowledged her role in creating a toxic workplace on Instagram, and told the Times she was “looking forward to spending a little time as a stay-at-home mom.”) And in February 2021, IWG, a British holding company run by 62-year-old billionaire Mark Dixon, purchased a majority stake. Then, that spring, as vaccines became widely available, New York City coworking spaces started to reopen. New companies flooded the market, hoping to accommodate folks eager to finally get out of the house. In contrast to their VC-subsidized heyday, most are “straightforwardly utilitarian,” as Allegra Hobbs wrote in Curbed, offering a place to charge your computer, no kombucha in sight. But, for better or worse (and it’s probably worse), I went back to The Wing.
No surprise here—The Wing fits awkwardly into this new landscape. There are still vaguely feminist events (in early November, I could have attended a talk called “Women in NFTs: Making Space in the Metaverse”). There’s new merch for sale (sweatshirts and T-shirts in all the trendy fall colors). And the explicit go-girl messaging on the website has been replaced with a “culture code,” which states that “we treat everyone with respect.” My membership fee is down to $150/month, which, dare I say it, feels cheap. But the biggest transformation has got to be all the men hanging around.
The Wing has always had an awkward relationship to the concept of gender. In 2018, the New York Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into its gender-segregated policies, ultimately prompting The Wing to modify its rules the following year to accommodate members and guests of any gender identity. Despite the kerfuffle, I don’t remember ever actually seeing any guys around, pre-pandemic. Now, they’re everywhere—some members, some guests, some just giving it a whirl. They attract a lot of negative attention in these jewel box spaces, which were designed for noticing and being noticed. While they aren’t actually making more noise than anyone else, every sound emanating from their general area seems to draw more attention, whether it’s their lunchtime chitchat or their literal breathing. How, the old guard seems to be wondering, did they end up here? And do they really have to stay? But the female gaze (or, really, glare) doesn’t seem to penetrate.
Not that things would be perfect without the guys. On a recent Monday morning, a woman took the seat next to me and asked what The Wing was all about. She’d received a free day pass in the mail, and I relished the opportunity to tell her about the rise, the fall, the planned rebirth. I nodded toward the men a few chairs down and explained that they were a relatively new addition to the space. Then I got back to work while, to my horror, she started to make the first of what turned out to be multiple loud phone calls, including one to coworkers who weren’t as big fans of Succession as she was (“Well, I’m from a finance family, so it’s up my alley,” she concluded defensively) and two to berate customer service workers about the status of her returns. In the moment, I was shocked—who would act like this, especially in public? But then I remembered where I was. The problem with coworking (or any other social endeavor) was never men. Hell is other people—especially the ones who act entitled.