The Wing, a mini-empire of coworking spaces for women that we have discussed a great deal, is facing scrutiny yet again today, this time for its membership contract. A portion of that contract was made public by Study Hall, a New York-based community of freelance media workers that also runs a related online publication; they pointed out that The Wing’s membership terms include a highly unusual non-disparagement clause. A Wing spokesperson tells us they are currently “reviewing” the policy “to see if can be more clear.”
Study Hall began as a freelancer coworking space before evolving into a membership organization and publication. Allegra Hobbs, a freelance journalist who covers media issues for them, obtained a copy of the Wing’s membership contract and published sections of it on Monday. She pointed out that it includes some fairly broad non-disparagement and non-defamation language. Specifically, it stipulates that members shall “during and after the Membership Term, refrain from making any statements or comments of a defamatory or disparaging nature to any third party (including your social media channels) regarding the Company or any of the Company’s officers, directors, employees, personnel, agents, policies, services or products or other members, other than to comply with law.”
Non-disparagement language is usually reserved for employees of a company, or is included in severance agreements for fired or laid off employees. An employment law attorney, Russell E. Alder, told Study Hall that the “context” of such a provision in The Wing’s membership terms is “unusual.”
“A typical non-disparagement clause is in the context of an employment relationship or separation of employment — there is usually some kind of business relationship,” said Adler. “The context is unusual.”
The clause is unlikely to be enforced because The Wing would have to prove damages, like reputational harm, and that can be tricky. It is likely there just to dissuade members from speaking out, he said. “It sounds to me more like they’re putting it in to keep people from bad-mouthing it and probably keep bad reviews out...to me it is bad form, but it’s not per se illegal,” he said. “The bigger issue is when they actually want to enforce them.”
Jezebel contacted The Wing’s CEO Audrey Gelman to see what, precisely, the deal was here. In response, we were sent over a statement from a Wing spokesperson, telling us that the clause was originally put in place to protect the privacy of members, not Wing staff:
“This clause originally came from us wanting to create a safe space for our members and protect their privacy, considering that The Wing has members with public profiles — and this language was initially intended to protect those members from feeling like others might disparage them or speak about private things they observed.”
The bulk of the language in the clause is very clearly about Wing staff, however—“the Company or any of the Company’s officers, directors, employees, personnel, agents, policies, services or products”—with a mention of members only thrown in at the end. The same spokesperson’s statement adds that the policy has “never been enforced, but we are reviewing it to see if it can be more clear.”
The same statement added that transparency and “candid feedback” are welcomed and encouraged:
We actively encourage and welcome candid feedback from our members — it has helped us build and expand our business. We wouldn’t be where we are today without it.
Transparency with our members is vital to us: this agreement is provided to all members when they sign up, and is always accessible in our member portal. Whenever we update the agreement, we notify all members.
The Wing has recently opened new locations in Los Angeles and London, bringing the total to nine; two more locations, in Seattle and Toronto, are planned for 2020. The process has not been free from controversy or criticism: The company was sued in October by a D.C. area man for alleged gender discrimination in their membership policies; in a move that The Wing says was unrelated, they adjusted their admissions policy to more clearly state that they admit nonbinary and trans people. (An irritable anonymous Instagram account, Men of the Wing, apparently run by a semi-disgruntled member, chronicles sightings of people they presume to be cisgender men at various Wing locations. Gelman occasionally comments on photos published by the account, informing them, for instance, that an offending man is a Wing employee.)
In March, the company issued a statement condemning the government of Saudi Arabia, leading Business Insider to point out that The Wing has indirectly received money from the government of Saudi Arabia: The coworking space WeWork, which owns a 25 percent share of The Wing, received money from an investment vehicle called The Vision Fund, which is largely funded by Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.