New York City Rights Panel Examines The Wing Women’s Club (CORRECTED)

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By John Herzfeld

The New York City Human Rights Commission faces a social media backlash after it launched a sex discrimination investigation into the women-only networking club The Wing.

Supporters of the organization, which has 1,500 members in New York and Washington, D.C., launched a Twitter hashtag #IStandWithTheWing following a March 26 article about the commission’s inquiry in the online women’s issues blog Jezebel.

The Wing is a women-only private social club that offers co-working office space.

“All that’s happened is that the commission and The Wing have agreed to sit down and have a conversation,” the organization’s attorney, Karen Dunn, told Bloomberg Law March 27. “We’re looking forward to a productive conversation. After all, human rights includes the empowerment of women and helping level the playing field for women, which is exactly what The Wing does.”

Dunn is a prominent litigator at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP in Washington who led the defense of Uber Technologies Inc. in its trade-secrets fight with the Alphabet Inc. autonomous vehicle company Waymo.

The commission’s investigation stems from an inquiry from a member of the public whether what The Wing does is legal under the city Human Rights Law’s prohibition of sex discrimination in public accommodations. Wide media coverage of the organization’s activities also sparked the probe.

The Wing’s outside financing is led by WeWork Companies Inc., a New York-based company started in 2010 that provides shared work spaces, technology communities, and services for entrepreneurs, freelancers, startups, small businesses, and large enterprises.

The commission issued a statement saying it is “proud of its record supporting and empowering women in New York City, many of whom have, for the first time in their lives, found a viable venue for justice, and we will continue to fight for equality for New Yorkers in every corner of our city.”

The controversy appeared to put the commission in the position of working out a conflict between the letter of the city human rights law and the views of advocates for women’s rights who have come to The Wing’s defense.

Mayor Speaks Out

A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who appointed the commission’s chairwoman and members but has no direct control over them, issued a statement March 27 saying that the reports concern “very normal reviews by an agency with an important responsibility.”

De Blasio “is fully supportive of The Wing’s mission, and we are confident the human rights commission and The Wing can work together to ensure the law is being followed so that The Wing can continue to focus on its important work,” the spokesman, Eric Phillips, said.

The de Blasio administration has been working for nearly four years to raise its anti-discrimination profile. The panel already had in the works a March 28 seminar on empowering women in the workplace that it’s mounting with District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which represents thousands of municipal workers.

The commission has more than 550 open claims of gender discrimination in its docket. Gender-based discrimination made up the third-largest area of claims pending before the commission in 2017, or roughly 13 percent of all claims.

Reports alleging gender discrimination in the workplace increased by 40 percent in 2017, with 198 reports in 2017, up from 142 in 2016.

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