Lawyers explain why single-sex co-working spaces are a legal minefield

Nomadic Thinkers is a male-only co-working space. Photo: Nomadic Thinkers/ Facebook.

The founders of Nomadic Thinkers, a “male-only” co-working space in Brisbane, were ridiculed and forced to apologise this week after they said environments exclusively for men could help prevent domestic violence.

“Healthy, happy men don’t hit their wives,” co-founder Samuel Monaghan told Junkee, in comments that triggered such an uproar that the founders shuttered their social media accounts.

The case raised questions about the legal status of of single-sex business environments.

Peta Ellis, the female boss of River City Labs said she expects the prevalence of these groups to increase.

“Co-working is on trend at the moment with how people want to change working,” she told Business Insider.

“I’ve come to the conclusion recently that co-working spaces are going to start to popping up within different niches. It’s not about a workplace, it’s about wrapping community around people with similar interests.

“I see a lot more places opening up based on common interests, as more of a community.”

Luke Mitchell, partner at Dooley and Associates and a specialist in workplace law, said a space like Nomadic Thinkers would have to seek official protection to avoid legal action on discrimination grounds – protection they would be unlikely to receive.

“If a female was to contact these people [Nomadic Thinkers] and want to apply for a space… and if they were were refused on the basis that she was female… and that female makes a complaint, I think they might have a problem.”

While he said there are some exemptions available in the Sex Discrimination Act, whether it be indecency, privacy or general occupation qualifications, they didn’t seem to apply in this situation.

“I don’t think the various exceptions under the Act… would apply to Nomadic Thinkers. The only real way that they could make it work is if they apply for and are granted an exemption under the Act.”

He said if it ended up in court, it would be likely that the man-only rule would have to be reversed.

“Unless there is a genuine reason why an occupation could only be done by a male, it will be difficult to successfully defend that.”

He said if these niches in co-working spaces continue to grow, all it would take is one adverse finding in court “to make it come crashing down”.

He advises others considering starting a single-sex co-working space to think very carefully about doing so.

“You need to have a look at whether there is a specific reason, for having a male or female on space. If there is not a genuine need in all likely it could fall afoul of the law,” he said.

“You would have to think very carefully about why and whether there is a legitimate reason to limit the offering to one sex.”

But it could be a different issue for all-women groups

Alex Grayson, senior associate and leader of the employment law practice at Maurice Blackburn in Sydney, says an all-female co-working space may have more success.

“The Sex Discrimination Act permits a person to take special measures with the aim of improving equality between men and women, and such special measures are not unlawful,” she said.

“In male-dominated industries where barriers to female participation in the workplace exist and hinder their ability to participate equally in that work, there may be justification for implementing special measures, such as female only workspaces that improve equality for women.”

And when it comes a co-working space being liable despite not actually being the employer, Grayson says the same rules still apply.

“Although the owners of co-working spaces are not the employer of the individuals using the space, it is also unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act for a person who provides goods or services or facilities to discriminate against another person on the ground of sex.

“This can occur where a person refuses to provide the other person with those goods or services, or refuses to make those facilities available to the other person. On that basis, if co-working spaces are viewed as a service or facility that is set up for the exclusive use of one sex, this will likely contravene the Sex Discrimination Act.

“The Act does provide an exception to those provisions, which is that they do not apply to the provision of services the nature of which is such that they can only be provided to members of one sex. However, it would be difficult to argue that co-working spaces would fall within that exception.”

NOW READ: A founder of the controversial ‘male-only’ co-working space wrote a bizarre blog post discussing ‘men’s issues’

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