- The Wing, a private club and co-working space aimed at women, quietly dropped its practice of not admitting men after a DC man sued the company for gender discrimination.
- Paying members have portrayed the no-men rule as a bulwark against sexual harassment, while critics have called it discriminatory.
- A person with knowledge of internal discussions at The Wing said the litigation was not the original impetus for the new membership policy.
The company has advertised its membership criteria during pressinterviews, through its clubs' decor, in its in-house magazine and podcast, and on its branded merchandise. Paying members haveportrayed the no-men rule as a bulwark against sexual harassment, while critics have called it discriminatory. The company's ambitious plans for expansion, to nine cities in three countries, and growing war chest of venture capital, from investors like WeWork and Sequioa Capital, have drawn even more attention to it.
As this conversation was unfolding last year, however, The Wing quietly dropped its no-men rule after a 53-year-old man brought a gender discrimination lawsuit seeking damages of up to $12 million against the startup. The case has not been previously reported.
The Wing said in a statement on Friday that they have "adopted written membership policies to ensure that The Wing's staff is trained not to make assumptions about someone's identity based on how they present, or to ask prospective members or guests to self-identify," seeming to leave room open for men to be accepted as long as they "align" with The Wing's mission.
And in a statement previously submitted to the court for the lawsuit, The Wing's co-founder and CEO Audrey Gelman clarified that the new policy "provides that all applicants will be evaluated based on their commitment to The Wing's mission, regardless of their perceived gender identity."
A person with knowledge of internal discussions at The Wing said the litigation was not the original impetus for the new membership policy. They said the new policy arose from discussions with Wing members who are trans and non-binary, who urged the company to adopt a policy that better recognized their identities. Another factor, the person added, were a series of productive conversations Wing executives had with agents of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which opened an investigation into The Wing's membership practices in late 2017.
'The Wing has a policy, pattern, and practice of discrimination against men'
In June 2018, James E. Pietrangelo applied to The Wing's Washington, DC branch, in Georgetown, by filling out and submitting a brief online application. According to Pietrangelo'soriginal complaint, he later called and spoke with two employees of The Wing about his application.
The first employee, Pietrangelo said, "affirmatively indicated that as a matter of policy [he] would automatically be denied membership because he is a man." The second employee "further explained ... The Wing would deny [him] membership by permanently deferring and thus never granting his application for membership."
Nearly three months later, in August, Pietrangelo filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against The Wing, in federal court in DC, seeking combined damages of at least $75,000 and up to $12 million.
"The Wing has a policy, pattern, and practice of discrimination against men," he wrote, citing his conversation with the company's staffers, media coverage stemming from the New York City government's unrelated investigation into its membership policy, and its own marketing materials.
(The Wing was not the first entity to be sued by Pietrangelo, an attorney who often represents himself pro se. He has brought litigation against the United States Army, a city in Ohio, a deli in Vermont, and a law firm in Washington, DC. The last case led to a decision, handed down by the DC Court of Appeals in 2009, thatstated his "conduct in this case and at trial was a shocking abuse of the judicial system.")
Pietrangelo's complaint against The Wing hinged on the District of Columbia's Human Right Act, which forbids most businesses that serve the public from denying service to customers because of their sex, gender identity, or gender expression. The legal journalist Mark Joseph Stern has argued The Wing's original membership rules fall afoul of the DCHRA. The Wing, he wrote at Slate last year, is "a for-profit company that provides members goods and services in exchange for money -- more like a country club than the Boy Scouts. This profit motive subjects The Wing to New York and D.C.'s public accommodations laws, which clearly proscribe sex-based exclusions." The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union's D.C. chapter, Arthur Spitzer, expressed similar skepticism to the radio station WAMU.
Sarah Jacobs/Business Insider
The Wing has a new policy that screens candidates based only on 'their commitment to The Wing's mission'
The Wing's response to Pietrangelo, submitted in late September, offered three counter-arguments.
The first one rejected Pietrangelo's claim that he had been harmed by The Wing's policy and deserved $12 million in damages, given that he was able to work in his own apartment building. The second one claimed that, because any actual damages were unlikely to exceed $75,000, the court lacked jurisdiction. Federal courts are allowed to hear civil cases among litigants located in different jurisdictions only when the damages in question exceed $75,000. Both The Wing and its DC subsidiary are incorporated in Delaware, while Pietrangelo, a resident of Ohio, currently lives in Washington, DC.
The Wing's third argument was very different. It stated that Pietrangelo's claims were "mooted," or invalidated, because The Wing had "recently adopted a formal, written membership policy" that screens candidates based only on "their commitment to The Wing's mission." In a statement submitted to the court, Gelman, The Wing's co-founder and CEO, clarified that her company dropped its no-men-allowed practice more than three months ago, on September 24:
Prior to August 30, 2018, The Wing did not have a formal, written membership policy and The Wing's practice was to admit as members only women and non-binary individuals. On August 30, 2018, The Wing's Board of Directors approved the adoption of The Wing's first formal, written membership policy. That membership policy provides that all applicants will be evaluated based on their commitment to The Wing's mission, regardless of their perceived gender identity. On September 24, 2018, The Wing implemented the policy with respect to its application process.
The Wing's decision to alter its membership policy represents a fundamental shift from its stance last year, when it learned of an ongoing investigation, conducted by the New York City Commission on Human Rights, into its membership policy. Representatives for The Wing told dozens of media outlets that they were not in violation of the city's human rights law, which heavily overlaps with its DC equivalent.
There is not an established causal connection between Pietrangelo's lawsuit and the new membership policy.
Although The Wing states in filings that it did not have a formal written policy before August, Gelman told NBC News in May that The Wing's members "are women, self-identifying women, trans women, and individuals who don't identify of the gender binary. That is our membership policy."
The Wing says Pietrangelo's application reflected 'at best indifference, and at worst hostility' to its mission
The decision on the new policy dovetails with the company's contention that Pietrangelo would have been rejected anyway, based on the content of his application.
"Plaintiff's answers to the applications' substantive questions reflected at best indifference, and at worst hostility, to The Wing's unique mission," wrote the company's attorneys, Karen Dunn and Christopher Belelieu of Boies Schiller Flexner, who described their client's mission as "the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community." In a subsequent filing, The Wing reproduced Pietrangelo's completed application, which reads, in part:
Question: Why do you want to become a member of The Wing?
Answer: Looks like a great place to work and network in a nurturing environment.
Question: How have you promoted or supported the advancement of women? Provide specific examples.
Answer: I have always supported and advocated for equality for all people.
Question: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
Answer: The same challenges facing men.
Since the original complaint and response, the case has grown increasingly acrimonious. In an October 9 filing, Pietrangelo wrote, "The Wing's purported new policy is completely subjective -- The Wing retains absolute discretion to determine who is and is not 'committed' to The Wing's 'mission' -- and thus can easily be a proxy or cypher for excluding all men."
In an October 16 filing, The Wing's attorneys argued, "Plaintiff's own allegations demonstrate that The Wing is highly selective and Plaintiff does not dispute that his application was devoid of any [indication] that he is committed to, or even supportive of, The Wing's mission. Simply put, Plaintiff is not a competitive applicant to The Wing."
The same filings contain previously undisclosed details of The Wing's membership process. For example, Pietrangelo calculated, and The Wing's attorneys did not dispute, that the company's overall acceptance rate is "just over 8 percent." This would make The Wing, across all locations, more competitive than the vast majority of undergraduate programs in the US. According to Gelman'sstatement to the court, just 12 of the approximately 26,000 applicants were men.
Pietrangelo, reached by telephone, did not have immediate comment on his lawsuit.
In a statement to INSIDER, a representative of The Wing said:
The Wing is a space designed for women with a mission of advancing women through community. With a growing number of members who identify as transgender or beyond the gender binary, we want to make sure that we are as inclusive a community as possible. To that end, we've made internal updates and adopted written membership policies to ensure that The Wing's staff is trained not to make assumptions about someone's identity based on how they present, or to ask prospective members or guests to self-identify.
Particularly in the context of ongoing attempts to narrowly define gender as a biological condition determined at birth, ensuring that our community is inclusive of the trans and non-binary community couldn't be more important. We're committed to advancing a feminist ethos that is inclusive of those who align with our mission, including women and people of marginalized genders.
The Wing also provided a copy of a lengthy announcement sent to members on Friday about the new membership policy. It does not mention Pietrangelo's lawsuit.
The case is currently awaiting a ruling by Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, who was appointed by the Trump administration in December 2017, after a 97-3 vote in the U.S. Senate.