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Sexism in the city: Business women take on old-boy London clubs

Suzi Ring

Bloomberg

| Thu, February 22, 2018 | 07:05 am
Sexism in the city: Business women take on old-boy London clubs

The interior of the AllBright. (AllBright/Tim Bishop)

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Madeleine Albright told 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.

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On March 8, International Women’s Day, serial entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow and former Hearst Magazines U.K. 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.

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“The Zeitgeist is really with us,” Wosskow, who sold her home-swapping vacation service for 53 million pounds ($75 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-center issue for business.”

The Presidents Club was a reference to 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 toward the commercial aspirations of its members, from marketing workshops and investor-matchmaking programs to the decor.

Wood paneling 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 U.K. and beyond evokes their mission—Bloomsbury, a neighborhood 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-story 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.

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