Subtle Sexism and the Open Office Floor Plan

Some women say ‘being on display’ impedes their productivity and erodes privacy

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright June 4, 2018
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Subtle Sexism and the Open Office Floor Plan

Executives considering whether to redesign their offices to modern, open-office floor plans to foster collaboration and improve creativity may want to think again.

Some women consider open offices to be slightly sexist and detrimental to collaboration and productivity, saying they were very aware of being constantly watched and having their appearance endlessly scrutinized, British researchers found. Men, the researchers said, did not complain as much about the lack of privacy.

"When changing from a more closed, compartmentalized office space to a new open-plan, transparent and fluid working space, office workers were more conscious of their visibility and often found this unsettling rather than liberating," said lead researcher Alison Hirst at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K., in a news release.

Hirst and Christina Schwabenland of the University of Bedfordshire, also in the U.K., analyzed the behavior of about 1,000 employees of a local government who moved from six separate buildings into a new, shared office space. They wrote about their findings in "Doing Gender in the 'New Office,'" which was published online in Gender, Work and Organization.

According to Fast Company, Hirst "interviewed 27 women and 13 men for one to two hours over the course of three years, with two intensive periods of observation and interviews and many other visits."  

Female workers told the researchers they felt as if they were always on display in the redesigned open-office space.

Even the architect, who the researchers didn't name, compared the layout he designed to a nudist beach, Fast Company reported. "You know, first you're a little bit worried that everyone's looking at you, but then you think, hang on, everybody else is naked, no one's looking at each other."

However, "… sociological research of nudist beaches has shown that people do continue to watch each other—men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women," the researchers wrote.

 

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"Women … felt anxious about the idea of being constantly watched and felt they had to dress in a certain way," Hirst said. "However, there was also evidence that workers felt more equal, as everybody was more approachable in an open space. It was also seen by some as a chance to dress more smartly and fulfill a new identity."

Some Claim Spaces Too Noisy

Writing for CNBC last year, enterprise software strategist William Belk found in his own  study of 700 survey-takers from a broad range of industries that "58 percent of high-performance employees say they need more private spaces for problem-solving, and 54 percent of [them] say their office environment is 'too distracting.' "

And in 2013, researchers from the University of Sydney, writing in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that while people could communicate more easily in an open floor plan, "the layouts are widely acknowledged to be more disruptive due to uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy."

Researchers in the U.K. study found numerous examples of people, particularly women, changing their behavior and dress as a result of working in an environment of constant visibility. Some remarked they felt exposed in certain situations, for example if they had received some bad news and felt emotional.

"It very quickly turns a woman from a professional at work to a sex object. These are not conditions that will help a woman grow in her career," one anonymous responder told Fast Company after reading about the research there. The open-office plans "create time-consuming and mentally and emotionally draining obstacles and barriers in day-to-day work life that men do not usually have to consider in their own careers. Furthermore, the challenges that women experience at work are somehow invisible to the same men that perpetuate them, which makes them difficult to confront. When women do challenge these issues, they are trivialized, doubted or otherwise labeled negatively."

Others said it fostered an environment ripe for sexual harassment.

But some female leaders who work in offices with open plans say they haven't seen these kinds of harassment or overexposure. They report better, more-open communication and higher productivity.

"I am a female CEO who runs her own business on an open-office layout, and I love it," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, a document-filing service based in Calabasas, Calif. "Over the years, we have chosen the buildings we move into due to their open floor-plan options. It is not at all like being in a fishbowl. It's a casual environment."

She said employees sit in groups of threes, and while it can be noisy at times, employees are encouraged to take important calls in separate conference rooms or put on headphones if they need to concentrate.

"Our team is a mix of men and women of all ages, and we all treat one another with respect. If anything, our focus may be too much on our desktop computers. We have to make it a priority to remember to get up, stretch and move around."

ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D., president and founder of the leadership consultancy Diamond Associates in San Francisco, said the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

"When we work in cubicles we have an illusion of privacy—but no real privacy," she said, adding that the open layouts force people to dress and behave accordingly. Casual conversations that lead to creativity are more apt to occur in an open floor plan, too.

She added that as long as there are men and women at work, "there will be the tendency for the opposite sex to look at the other sex. Most people are respectful, [but] there is always the jerk who makes it uncomfortable for everyone. I think this is where HR has an important role to play" by setting policy about dress codes at work and appropriate workplace behavior, and conducting in-person training to prevent sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying.

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