There are all sorts of issues that can arise in an open-plan office. But can the structure increase sexism? New research suggests it might.
The backlash against open-plan offices will be boosted by a new piece of research suggesting that they encourage sexism.
In a fascinating study from the University of Bedfordshire and Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, researchers studied the transition of a local government department moving from traditional compartmentalised office spaces into a typical open-plan, glass dominated space. Employees had identical desks with collaborative spaces for meetings – every aspect of the design was intended to break down hierarchies and enable greater engagement.
Over the course of a three-year period the researchers interviewed 27 women and 13 men employees. They also spent time with the staff in informal coffee breaks, lunches and meetings, all in order to gauge how people adapted to their new work environment. The results were published in the academic journal, Gender, Work and Organisation.
A creeping sense
While some people enjoyed the new open spaces, researchers found that many of the women gradually became very sensitive to being constantly observed. They felt that they were always ‘on show’ and that their appearance was continually being evaluated and judged.
There was no evidence that the men who were interviewed experienced the same growing feelings of discomfort, or concerns about a lack of privacy.
The architect who designed the new office says that he anticipated there would be a period of cultural adjustment to the high visibility of people in the new environment, but he felt that people would get used to it in time. He told Fast Company: “I think it’s like going to a nudist beach. 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.”
The problem with this, as the academics responded, is that sociological research shows that men on nudist beaches – particularly when they are in groups – obsessively look at women.
Permanently on display
A woman employee named Pat told the researchers that the men on her team used to “mark” the attractiveness of young women coming into the office for interviews.
“Visibility enabled these men to judge and rank women according to their sexual attractiveness, just like men on the nudist beaches,” the researchers write.
The effect of being watched by male colleagues in the office was that the women became more anxious, and started to adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Some women decided to avoid parts of the open-plan office where there were only, or mainly, men working. Others began to wear more makeup or dress differently. Clothes became a way of signalling to other people whether they were important or not in the hierarchy. One woman said she swapped her cardigans for jackets to avoid being labelled as working in admin.
It’s interesting to note that the research didn’t set out to examine gender specifically – it was purely intended to explore how workplace culture shifts when office design changes radically. It was only when one of the female researchers herself began to observe these changes and also experienced the pressure to dress in a more feminine way, that the research took a different direction.
Open-plan is too open, and too closed
The ‘no place to hide’ nature of the office space also made women feel that they couldn’t show vulnerability. “If you’re upset about something… all you can do is go to the ladies,” one woman told the researchers. “There’s nowhere that you can go and speak to somebody on a one-to-one basis where you can’t be observed.”
Although the design team for these offices was all-male, there are plenty of examples where female architects have been on teams that have designed open-plan office spaces. Nor can we be sure whether or not these women’s experiences were peculiar to this office. But it does raise the question of whether other women also feel self-conscious or have raised anxiety due to being observed at work. HRM would be keen to hear your thoughts.