According to a study conducted by two British university researchers, open offices are actually kind of sexist.
That’s right. According to Co.Design, two researchers (Alison Hirst of Anglia Ruskin University and Christina Schwabenland of the University of Bedfordshire) studied a local government’s transition to an open-office setup over the period of three years. During this time, Hirst interviewed 27 women and 13 men and spent time around the office to get a taste of its climate, and their research was eventually published in an article in Gender, Work and Organization. Among the findings? Although some women did feel that the open office made things more fair and equal, others felt that the office style — which was designed by men — was discriminatory against women.
Why? Well, because some of the women Hirst interviewed felt that they were constantly being watched and having their appearances judged, while the men in the office did not feel that way.
“Men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women,” the researchers wrote.
According to Hirst and Schwabenland, the open office format caused some women to change their appearance. One woman said she started wearing jackets instead of cardigans to indicate that she was an administrator. Other women said they began to dress nicer or wear more makeup — including Hirst herself.
“She was surprised by the unusual amount of care she took over her own appearance, a degree of self-consciousness that she found burdensome as time progressed,” the researchers wrote. “To ‘fit in’ with the modern, clean aesthetic of the building itself and a dress code that was widely adopted, she departed from her usual preference for wearing jeans and no makeup; adopting a smart trouser suit and putting on makeup.”
What’s more, it was apparently an issue that an open office does not have a private place for women to go and have an emotional breakdown.
“If you’re upset about something, there’s nowhere to go,” one woman told them. “Where can you go? All you can do is go to the ladies, so there’s nowhere that you can go and speak to somebody on a one-to-one basis where you can’t be observed.”
Another woman, who was going through menopause, complained that she couldn’t have a fan on her desk to help with her hot flashes because she felt that people would notice and judge her.
Now, to be fair, some of the things that were going on in this particular office do sound like they were sexist. For example, a woman named Pat reported that her male coworkers would “mark” the physical appearances of women who were interviewing at the office. Here’s the thing, though: That isn’t an office layout’s fault. It’s a sexist action, sure, but that doesn’t mean that the design of the office is sexist — those men, and only those men, are to blame for that sexism.
The office in this example doesn’t provide a private space for men to have an emotional breakdown, either.
I’ve worked in open offices my entire adult life, and certainly, there are some annoying things about them. For example: Sometimes people can get loud, which can be annoying if you’re trying to concentrate on something. Never in a million years, though, would I have ever thought that they were sexist. Unless I have a TV appearance, I almost never wear makeup to the office. I wear jeans, and generally spend close to zero time on my appearance, but I’ve never felt judged. This leads me to believe that the issue in this particular office may have been some of the men rather than the office layout itself. (Because office layouts are, you know, made up of inanimate objects — and inanimate objects kind of don’t have the capacity to have views on women.)
Even though open offices have their annoying attributes, there are definitely some good things about them, too. For example: It’s much easier to brainstorm with your colleagues when you’re not locked away in a private office. I’ve had many ideas come from interactions with coworkers that I never would have had in a separate room with the door closed. Many people would argue that it actually makes for a better work environment when coworkers have more interactions with each other, and I do think that there’s some truth to that.
In any case, open offices present the exact same pressure on both men and women to be seen at all times. If a company had a setup where men had private offices but women were out on the open, then that would be sexist. But, as it stands, the office in this example doesn’t provide a private space for men to have an emotional breakdown, either — and that’s the definition of equality, not the opposite.