From the file

Feminism Inc. | The Wing was the perfect haven for professional women – until it wasn’t. Here’s what happens when corporate feminism turns sour.

Slow Newscast

Clipped wings

Clipped wings

Inside the rise and fall of The Wing, the feminist empire that got found out


Transcript

Basia: If you’re a person of a certain age, Instagram savvy, you’ll know what The Wing was. 

You’ll remember the cocktail of perfect pinks of its members clubs. 

You’ll think of the heavily promoted line – that this was a space designed and run by women only. 


Transcript

Basia: If you’re a person of a certain age, Instagram savvy, you’ll know what The Wing was. 

You’ll remember the cocktail of perfect pinks of its members clubs. 

You’ll think of the heavily promoted line – that this was a space designed and run by women only. 

You’ll remember scrolling, probably through 2018 and 19, through pictures of “wing women”, as they were called – influencers, celebrities, writers, politicians – having meetings and coffees and posting selfies of themselves in rooms named after other famous women. 

Rooms called Anita Hill. Lisa Simpson. Hermione Granger. Women, characters, who were famous before Instagram, but have found new fans in the age of the timeline and the inspirational quote. 

And if you’re anything like me, you might remember a pang of envy: thinking, maybe a little grudgingly, “Man this marketing really works!” A space committed to women, to female empowerment. Sign me up. If only you had a spare £2,000 a year, you could be in. 

I’m Basia Cummings, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast, the podcast where we tell one story that matters, each week, in depth, beyond the headlines. 

This week, we’re telling the story of The Wing, a feminist utopia that took the form of a members club, which had an astonishing rise, transforming from an exclusive club to a mission, a movement.

But, well, like many things that are built on Instagram, it turns out: it was a facade, in more ways than one.

In the last few months, we’ve seen the crumbling of a feminist business empire play out on the very social platform that built it. 

But this isn’t just the story of a fancy member’s club (though that is a good one). That facade means something. 

It tells us something important about how the intoxicating cocktail of corporate feminism and social media can become a kind of poison. It tells us about a very public reckoning that happened this summer.

And it is, of course, the story of how women rise, and how they fall….

Our story starts in New York City, with a young woman called Audrey Gelman. 

Audrey is a born and raised New Yorker, a Manhattan girl. The daughter of a microbiologist and a psychologist. She’s friends with a particular New York set, and she’s really, really into politics. 

In 2008, she works as a press aide on Hillary Clinton’s first unsuccessful campaign for the presidency.

[News clip: Hillary Clinton]

On her Instagram account, Audrey posts pictures with Bill Clinton, or old pictures of Hillary looking fabulous in the 80s and 90s, and glamorous selfies from various campaign trails. Already, in her early 20s, this was a young woman building an impressive new brand, with one foot in the world of fashion, and one in the world of power. 

And, really, it was her ability to blend these two worlds that really turned heads. In 2013, she was New York City’s youngest press secretary, working on Scott Stringer’s campaign to be New York City’s Comptroller…

[News clip: Scott Stringer]

She became a bit of a thing. In a profile of her in the New York Times, she was described as “a 26-year-old political ingénue”. 

After that, she joined a well-known strategy firm. 

It helped, of course, that one of her best friends had just become the celebrated, messy truth-teller of a generation.

Lena Dunham, just a year before, had written and launched Girls on HBO, the Sex In The City for the hapless, penniless, self-obsessed generation, and Marnie, one of its protagonists, was modelled on Audrey.

[Clip: Marnie from Girls]

Audrey even had a cameo appearance.

[Clip: Audrey on Girls]

This was a moment when the term millennial was crystallising, when what it meant to be a millennial woman was gaining shape, and Audrey was a blueprint. She was ambitious, charming, smart. She shared, like so many others, carefully curated slices of her life on Instagram and, looking back on those early posts, she comes across as a wry but earnest operator, who likes Slayer and Larry David, with a tattoo, inside her lip, with the words LETSGOMETS in capital letters.

She was on the rise. 

Then, in 2016, the year that changed so much, after years building a name and a reputation, Audrey Gelman launched something called The Wing. 

This was to be a women’s only space. 

A place to shower and change between work and whatever glamorous evening event you might have. Where a professional New York woman could privately transform.

In that early pitch, it was a luxury service, something you could only afford and would only need if you were living a certain kind of life. Audrey Gelman’s life, in fact. 

It was originally going to be called “Refresh”. And membership wasn’t cheap. It cost between $215 to $250 a month. 

But soon, it morphed. The company introduced a “scholarship” system for those who couldn’t afford it. It was immediately being marketed on much, much more than a space to change. 

This was to be a feminist utopia, uplifting women who worked; “women on their way,” as the tagline went. It was no longer just a service, it was a mission. 

Audrey declined to speak to us for this podcast. But here she is in 2018:

[News clip: Audrey Gelman explaining The Wing]

The Wing’s founders knew how to dress this mission up, and how to sell it. 

The spaces lived as much on the company’s Instagram as they did in reality: post after post showcasing these palaces of plush velvet, gold, marble and all the right pinks. 

And the power of The Wing’s message was so closely tied to the moment: this was the year Hillary Clinton failed to break the glass ceiling. The year Trump, the pussy-grabbing candidate, won. The year women started knitting pink pussy hats. 

However The Wing had been conceived, the mood across America very quickly changed in the autumn of 2016. 

The value of a space like The Wing took on new meaning. 

[Clip: Audrey Gelman]

The mission was becoming more and more central to Audrey Gelman’s business plan. 

And she had attracted investment from other impressive women: the co-founders of the spinning studio SoulCycle, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, and Hayley Barna, who founded the beauty delivery service Birchbox. Later, the founders of the Time’s Up movement, founded in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, came on as investors too. 

Sophie Elmhirst: And then in that process, finding her partner in the form of Lauren Kassan, going to talk to investors, this bigger idea grew out of that original quite practical, luxury idea. This idea of a mission and a social mission and a movement, and the idea of a place that was more than just a nice building

Basia: This is Sophie Elmhirst, a British feature writer who has spent months interviewing people at The Wing, from its once-glittering HQ to its front-of-house staff. This podcast is built on the reporting she has done to understand what happened here, and why it matters. 

Sophie: I think The Wing wouldn’t have, ironically, had any of the problems that it ended up having if it had stuck to a shamelessly exclusive model that it started off as being. And the mission was entirely well-meaning and genuine.

In its first instance, it was supposed to be a club for all women, for anyone who identified as a woman and non-binary and to be a place you could feel safe; it was a place where political movements could be born, where businesses could be created, where you could find solidarity and support, you could support political causes. It was to be much bigger than the sum of its parts and, and, on a sort of abstract level, rather than just a practical level, it wasn’t just a place where you would hang out and have coffee and talk.

It was a place where big ideas and a kind of total community for women would be found.

Basia: The launch was an unmitigated success. 

In an article about the launch the first space, in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, The Cut magazine wrote: “At the end of the evening, after several members had changed into white monogrammed pajamas for the sleepover portion of the proceedings, one woman wondered aloud why exactly the party had felt so easy and fun. ‘I think it was because there were no men here?’”

[News clip: Inside The Wing in 2016]

For many women who became members, there was a real power in being a female-only space. 

One woman told Sophie that, unlike WeWork, the other giant co-working space that was taking over cities across America, she didn’t have to worry about being hit on. That’s how low the bar was…

Sophie: I interviewed a founder of a tampon company, called Tara Chandra, and both she and her co-founder are women of colour. And she described to me going from working in a WeWork somewhere around the corner in central London to go into work in The Wing.

And she was like, the relief was just palpable. She felt comfortable. She felt at ease. She felt like it was sort of her kind of place, that she wasn’t going to be hit on. She wasn’t going to have to have sort of exhausting conversations about what she was wearing. Unless someone, another woman in the space, happened to be complimenting her on what she was wearing.

It was just a completely different kind of creative and friendly atmosphere. So, I think for all those that maybe felt weighed down by the intense aspiration and the interior design perfectionism, I think for lots of people, it was genuinely a welcoming and quite revolutionary space to be.

Basia: But there was something else in the power of The Wing. 

It also traded in the kind of envy that sororities so brilliantly harness. It made you want to aspire, to be better, to join in, and, more than anything, to be the kind of woman who feels at ease in such a plush, Insta-perfect place. 

Sophie: I’d heard about it on the grapevine. It was one of those things… you just had people talking about it as a sort of novel concept. 

And there had been some early controversies. But, yeah, my first encounter with it was walking through the door in New York and it was just, I don’t know, it was like something out of a dream, really, but for me, not necessarily like a kind of my ideal dream. It was almost too much.

I don’t know if you can imagine a kind of an interiors shoot for a magazine where everything is so perfectly connected, structured to look like an ideal version of itself that it no longer feels like it has any kind of place in reality. 

You’ve just immediately had low-level anxiety. You imagine that everyone is working more ambitiously and more efficiently than you are. And everyone looked better. And you could never sort of, I could never imagine being there and imagining that the work I would be doing would be matching up to the surroundings.

Basia: And, of course, it didn’t stop there. 

Soon came the merch. Oh was there merch! 

Key rings with “Girls Doing Whatever The Fuck They Want in 2019” emblazoned across them. Lighters with the words “Light like a girl”. And socks! With the slogan: “In Sisters We Trust”. 

Yup.

Within two years, Audrey Gelman and her business partner Lauren Kassan were raising millions for their mission. 

Sophie: They did a series of rounds of fundraising. You know, I think this is one of Audrey Gelman’s huge skills, that she was able to go out and, as she would put it, I think probably hustle – and she was very adept at that.

They had two seed rounds and then three further rounds in 2017, 2018, and you really saw the kind of level of investment just exponentially increase. By 2017, it was like, I think, an $8 million round. And that lead investor was New Enterprise Associates and then, December 2018, it was $75 million.

And then there was Sequoia Capital leading that investment round. These are big Silicon Valley, famous venture capital funds, right? And Audrey had other interesting people and other founders of other businesses involved in investing. People like Serena Williams or Kerry Washington. Individuals who were investing as well.

Basia: They hit the big time. Sequoia Capital, one of the biggest and most revered Silicon Valley funds – which had previously given money to Apple, Google, Instagram, and WhatsApp – came on board. One of their investors wrote on Twitter at the time: “The Wing is more than a company, it’s a phenomenon.” 

And at that time, you could believe it.

The term, I believe, is “blitzscaling”. They were growing big, and quick, high on the venture capital cash they had pouring in. 

The mission, it turned out, was a lucrative one. 

But in attracting so much attention, things were starting to change for Audrey and her business partner. 

Audrey’s friend, Sharmadein Reid, founder of beauty platform BeautyStack, put it like this: “They give you this plane, with no flying lessons.” 

Sophie: This was what took it into a different realm, I think. The seriousness and ambition changed. I spoke to people in the whole venture capital world about this. Once you’re in this league, especially with such big ambitions, they want expansion and rapid expansion on a fairly epic scale.

There’s a certain pact you’re making with investors at that point. It’s not a kind of a quiet process. It’s a hugely dynamic one. And it’s one thing if you’re doing like a WhatsApp, say, or an Airbnb, something which is scalable in a huge global way, very, very quickly with smaller numbers of people. When you’re talking about hospitality or real estate – all the things that The Wing was, actually buildings and people and frontline employees on a low wage – scaling that it’s a very different proposition.

You’re talking about opening lots more buildings, employing lots more people. The risks and complexities involved in that are of an entirely different order. 

Basia: Audrey Gelman was on top of the world… 

She was appearing on the covers of magazines, in the pages of Vogue, on popular podcasts. She was, throughout 2018 and 2019, everywhere. 

But the boom wasn’t to last long. 

After all, there was, throughout all of this, a paradox at the heart of what The Wing was telling the world it was: this was a place for all women, for female empowerment. 

But how could it be? This was, after all, an expensive club. It’s very model was an exclusive one. It was almost like a Shrödinger’s cat of a feminist proposition. 

[Pause]

I want to introduce you to a woman called Gina Martin. 

Gina is a campaigner. 

In 2017, as The Wing was gaining huge traction in the US, Gina was facing a fight. That year, she began touring the newsrooms of British media, at the beginning of a very personal campaign. 

[News clip: Gina Martin]

Gina, at this point, was only 24 years old. She had been “upskirted” at a music festival – a stranger had taken an intimate picture of her. 

Here she is on one of the flagship breakfast programmes on British television, Good Morning Britain, in August 2017, explaining why she was campaigning for a change in the law:

[News clip: Good Morning Britain]

Gina’s fierce determination meant that, within just two years, upskirting in the UK was made illegal. 

[News clip: Voyeurism Bill]

The Voyeurism (Offences) Act came into force on 12 April 2019. In just 18 months, Gina had changed the UK – she had ensured that what had happened to her would never happen to another woman again without consequence. 

If anyone was the perfect encapsulation of what The Wing should be all about, about the women it should uplift, it was Gina. 

And so in 2019, when The Wing announced it was coming to London to open a new venue, unsurprisingly, they approached Gina. 

Gina: I was approached by The Wing London to become a founding member. That was over email. They presented what their aims were and I was quite curious about it because, when I first moved to London, I lived in a store room of a pub for two years. The man who I lived with, we often used to go to members’ clubs and they were obviously male dominated. 

The handful of times I went to those, being a working class, I’m from Liverpool, working class family, I remember feeling like “this is so exciting I’m in these clubs that no one goes into”, completely ignorant, not really understanding what that meant, but I had a handful of experiences at those clubs that were very misogynistic and very uncomfortable, and intimidating. I realised that those clubs were kind of a breeding ground for powerful, unpleasant men.

So when I got this email about The Wing, I thought, “Wow, what an amazing idea!” This kind of space to support women, for women to be able to network, for anyone who identifies as a woman – it was inclusive, for non-binary people. So I thought, “Yes, of course I’ll become a founding member.” I was very flattered, I thought the idea was great. 

That was on me, I didn’t really research it enough. And then I got offered to do a Vogue shoot for the founding members, and the other people for the Vogue shoot were Otegha Uwagba, Sharmadean Reid, and the chef Skye Gyngell, and I thought, “Wow if those women are doing it…” So I did that shoot.

Basia: For Gina, the mission of The Wing worked. 

It made her feel exactly like Audrey, three years before, had hoped to make women feel: like there was a space just for her. 

Gina: I remember when I went – the draw for me was that it wasn’t a binary affair, like it was really open to anyone who identified as a woman, and there was a lot of push on this whole non-binary thing in the PR, so I thought, “Oh, that’s great.” 

Basia: But after that photoshoot for Vogue, advertising this brilliant young campaigner as a founder member of the London Wing, Gina didn’t hear from them…

Gina: I was basically asked to be in the shoot and then didn’t receive any kind of emails or anything and then literally a year, eight or nine months went by, and I walked past it, in central London where it was, and I went, “Oh my god, it’s open!” 

And I just walked past it and saw it’s open, so I just went in and said, “Hi, I’m Gina.” I was like, “I’m a founding member, but I don’t have membership and I’d like to see what the club’s about. I put my name to it so I’d like to have something back for it and see what it’s like.”

Basia: Gina went in, and was told of course go in and work, while they figured out her membership. But it didn’t materialise. 

She went back three times, her emails were forwarded around, but no card ever arrived. 

Then other things started to become apparent… she said that, while they had made a big deal of this being a welcome space for the LGBT community, she felt that there was no one visibly from that community on their board, or on the team. She also noticed that it appeared all… very white. 

Gina: I just felt like the vibe of it was very like, how do I explain this, was like commercialised feminism? It feels very obviously like “Get them girl!”, “Have it all!” vibe, which is fine, but that’s not my personal vibe, I didn’t feel very comfortable there.

Basia: Gina felt used. 

This felt a long way from the mission she had been promised. The one she had been used to promote, no less. 

Gina: On the day of the shoot being coddled over. But after that absolutely no interest. I got a bit – the people at the desk who were lovely were trying to understand what it meant that I was a founding member and we had this back and forth, and I almost wanted to say, “I actually don’t know what that means, but I just know I was in a Vogue shoot for it?”

Basia: In all the conversations I had with Sophie about her reporting, this is the interview of hers that most stood out because it encapsulates, so clearly, the moment where that paradox at the heart of this business started to become apparent. 

The moment the mission diverged from reality. 

And to many of the staff who had been hired to work there, this divergence felt like a betrayal. 

After all, The Wing’s mission wasn’t just sold to eager investors and prospective members, but to its staff, too.

Sophie: For some people, I think people kind of high up in the executive function, there was a sense of a loss of control once they started expanding. If they just kept it as the first one or two, you know, spaces in New York, they could have retained a degree of closeness to staff, a sense of what was going on in the space, monitoring how staff were being treated and how they felt.

And once it expanded, they lost that oversight. If you talked to people at the other end, and in their experience of working at The Wing, it was dysfunctional, with a discrepancy between what they’d been told working at The Wing was going to be like, and what it was actually like.

It just became really obvious: I spoke to kitchen staff, front-desk staff, people who had been lower down the pecking order. They’d been told that they were going to come into this very supportive environment where there was opportunity for advancement, for mentorship, for quickly moving up the ladder… that there was a sort of career opportunity. But also a unique working environment that wouldn’t be like working anywhere else because you were coming to work in this mission-based company.

Something that sticks in my head is one of the kitchen staff I spoke to, she worked in two different spaces. She wasn’t willing to give me her real name as many of them weren’t… because a lot of them are still under quite strict non-disclosure agreements or non-disparagement clauses. 

She just talked about how she had asked for there to be like a tip jar on a counter, and was told that wasn’t really “on brand”.

Of course, there was sort of discrepancy between what she was actually earning, which wasn’t very much. So the idea was that The Wing didn’t really want to want to advertise that fact, I suppose. But how she was sort of meant to be enjoying the experience of working.

Basia: To be clear: a former executive said that, as far as they knew, tip jars were permitted in the spaces. 

But there were bigger problems. One former Wing executive told Sophie that some staff seemed to think they were coming to work at a non-profit. 

They told her that the executive team were wary of being clear about what The Wing actually was: a company that had ambitious social aims, but was also under fierce pressure from investors to grow quickly. 

It turned out, working at The Wing was like working anywhere else, except worse, because you’d been told it would be better, Sophie said. 

As criticism mounted, Gelman wrote an article in Fast Company magazine in February 2020, admitting to her and her co-founder’s “blind spots” as white, cis women, saying they had prioritised “business growth over cultural growth”.  

She wrote, “The hardest part was that these failures led us to inadvertently replicate some of the very social hierarchies we’d set out to dismantle.” 

And then, the reports of mistreatment and racist abuse started to leak out…

In an article by the reporter Amanda Hess, published in the New York Times, 26 then current and former employees of The Wing described abuse and mistreatment. 

They said they had endured casual racism from Wing members, who were predominantly white. They described an “unstable work environment”, punishingly long days, and low pay. 

“The drive for perfection created a culture of fear and secrecy,” one former employee says

These reports, couple with the arrival of the global pandemic, saw the company go into freefall. 

For staff who were let go, The Wing announced two months’ severance pay and an employee relief fund, partly funded by the CEOs, to which staffers could apply for one-off payments of $500.

When the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, The Wing issued a statement of support and, on 1 June, announced a donation of $200,000 to various funds. 

But that provoked a lot of anger from staff wondering at the company’s ability to grandstand on systemic racism when they had not dealt with the alleged systemic racism within their own company.

Then, on 10 June, The Wing’s social media feeds fell silent. 

And as Sophie says: for a company who had used social media to broadcast an aspirational, progressive lifestyle to which they were selling access, perhaps there was now simply no point in posting: there was nothing to sell, and so nothing to say.  

The next day, Gelman stepped down. It was, for anyone following this world on social media, undisputedly, a moment. 

“The decision is the right thing for the business and the best way to bring The Wing along into a long overdue era of change,” she wrote to colleagues. 

Staffers, furious at their treatment, formed a group called Flew the Coup, sharing their stories on Instagram and organising a digital walk-out. 

And so the key question at this moment, for The Wing and Audrey Gelman, was: how can you have this obviously noble, uplifting, empowering mission-driven thing but also make money? 

The answer, it seemed,  is you probably can’t – without compromising the mission..

Because if, according to its own aims, it isn’t for all women, then it’s failed at its very core. 

And that failure – because of the very nature of this new brand of millennial marketing that Audrey had been so adept at, to be present, visible, share something of herself on social media – became Audrey’s personal failure. 

Audrey Gelman, the archetypal Wing woman, whose company was marketed as an extension of her own values, of her own image, was brought down as soon as that image cracked. 

Sophie: I think, after she resigned, there was the sense of… almost some sort of disappearance. And I spoke to a lot of people who knew her or other founders of other kinds of companies. And her friend, Sharmadean Reid, who all give a sense of bafflement and consternation, I guess, at the idea that a woman messes up in a public way or a company, man, you know, something goes wrong.

It’s actually, Audrey didn’t commit a crime, but it was as though the punishment had to be fairly total. She knew she had to sort of disappear and not be sort of seen or heard from.

She then did emerge, a few months later, on Instagram, appropriately enough, given that it’s the platform where a lot of The Wing has played out, to write a very, very long apology to Flew the Coup, the campaign group, which she then obviously shared with all her followers as well, and which was then picked up and reported on by various media outlets. 

And it was a very long and very self-flagellating, hugely detailed apology. Really kind of itemising every possible kind of personal and corporate failure that she had made, and taking responsibility for it.

And I guess there are lots of things to say about that, but the one that struck me was that it’s not something ever read someone do before, or certainly not that you would ever see a male founder do. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Adam Neumann, for example, have to write any sort of agonised apology on any platform.

Basia: And this is an important point. 

Few male founders have ever been expected to publicly flagellate themselves in the way Audrey Gelman was expected to. 

Did you ever see Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork, apologise so publicly? 

Take the argument put forward by Sara Mauskopf, co-founder and co-CEO of childcare platform Winnie, who wrote an article headlined “The inevitable takedown of the female CEO”. 

She said that, while there was no excuse for racist or poor treatment of staff, women founders tended to come under particular and unjust pressures, both aesthetic and ethical. 

Given that such a tiny fraction of companies have women as leaders at all (5 per cent of public corporations in the US; in the UK, just 5 out of the FTSE 100 companies have female CEOs).

“The way we are targeting female founders and CEOs is doing nothing to encourage gender equality,” Mauskopf wrote. 

In a statement to Sophie and Tortoise, The Wing said: “We are encouraged to hear of Audrey’s time of reflection and growth.” 

They posted their own apology on Instagram a couple of days later: “We can’t begin to rebuild without an apology to you, our members, employees and community,” they wrote. “The reality is, we’re still figuring things out,” they conceded. “Inclusivity must be a top priority”, and there must be a “commitment to diversity inclusion and anti-racism”. 

Sophie: I think it’s sort of one of the ways that Instagram, you know, has kept coming up in a slightly absurd way. In the original New York Times exposé there was an anecdote about Audrey Gelman coming down from on high to come and wash some dishes.

And the idea being, of course, of sort of mucking in with the staff and the CEO getting their hands dirty. And this was quickly documented and put on Instagram and caused a certain amount of irritation amongst employees.

I happened to talk to one of the employees who was there who said this did seem to sum up something about The Wing. That it was supposed to be part of this sort of work initiative where everyone in senior levels was experiencing all different aspects of working at The Wing, but, really, Audrey Gelman came down and she washed a dish, and they took a picture.

Then there was another side of that story, which I had from someone more senior, a former executive at The Wing, who said, “Well, actually, she was there a while, and she was pregnant.” And, you know, another female founder I spoke to was very irritated by this anecdote.

Sara Mauskopf, the CEO of Winnie, was saying what CEO goes and washes dishes all the time? Like, why would we ever expect that of a man, washing dishes? She felt this was a peculiarly sexist example, of someone being criticised for doing something symbolically, which of course all leaders and CEOs do all the time, using a platform like Instagram, because of course that’s the way the world works now. 

And everyone has to use platforms like Instagram to the best of their ability. So, yeah, that this was sort of, I guess, a sexist criticism itself; that she didn’t wash enough dishes or something?

And I guess it’s like Instagram’s working for and against you on all levels. It’s like, you have to do this stuff to fulfil it, but it’s also exposing the hypocrisy at the heart of something. 

Audrey Gelman was this very visual ambassador for the brand. She’s had sort of four months of after having resigned of sort of self-imposed sort of silence and just off the platform and out of public life. The founders that I spoke too voiced confusion and, um, disappointment, because it sort of felt like, wow, okay, a woman founder messes up or something goes wrong and she doesn’t get a second chance. She just has to sort of disappear. And that sort of felt unnerving, I think, to a lot of women I spoke to in that world. 

Basia: This reckoning didn’t just come for Audrey Gelman this summer. 

There was a line of women CEOs leaving their jobs amid accusations of toxic or racist cultures in their workplaces. The Black Lives Matter movement helped many workers find a voice. In many cases, those voices broke through the facade. 

Women like Christene Barberich at Refinery29, a website for young women; Yael Aflalo at Reformation, a sustainable clothing brand; Leandra Medine, at ManRepeller, a fashion website. Accusations of racism also hit Glossier, the billion-dollar make-up company, again, firmly rooted in the world of Insta, Gen-Z aesthetics. 

One magazine called it “the girlboss reckoning”. 

You might, by this point, be wondering if perhaps, at the heart of all this, The Wing is an illustration of the fact that capitalism and feminism are incompatible – that the principles of private companies driven by investor interests do not, cannot, align with feminist and intersectional priorities. 

I’m not so sure of that yet. 

But I do think The Wing teaches us a very important, and very current, thing about young women in power: 

First, it’s that, of course, we continue to hold them to impossibly high standards. 

This can be true, of course, while we can also acknowledge, undisputedly, that the experiences of the women of colour working at The Wing are valid, and that – as Audrey Gelman herself acknowledged – for the way they were allowed to be treated, there should be consequences. 

But it’s also a cautionary tale about myth-making: it reveals the very particular poison that brews when a mission exists only online, and fails to translate into meaningfully different working practices. Like proper pay. Or a healthy working environment. Or a sense of real community.  

The pink-washing was always going to be found out. Because, when you think back, of course that merch was ridiculous. Of course it was crass. Can branded socks ever do it for the sisterhood? 

What changed along the way was, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, a demand for transparency and authenticity and integrity which really cut through. 

The Wing suddenly appeared nonsensical. The philosophical impossibility at its heart was finally exposed – and, with it, the promise of a feminist business empire, promising to do things differently, crumbled on the very social media timeline that launched it. 

Credits

Reporter Sophie Elmhirst 
Producer Matt Russell
Music Tom Kinsella
Editor Basia Cummings 

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Capitalism and feminism. Insta-aspiration and reality. How The Wing’s contradictory cocktail became a kind of poison

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