Back in the day, employees at most businesses — big and small — found themselves walled in behind those bland and somewhat depressing office cubicles. You remember those. But things have changed. When I visit clients now, most of them have large, airy, open floor plans where employees smilingly sit across from one another and comment on what the other is having for lunch. The idea is to increase engagement, promote more innovation and encourage team building. So if your office looks like this, you’re certainly not alone.
But … uh-oh … did you know you may also be inadvertently promoting sexism, too?
That’s the conclusion from a recent three-year study conducted in Britain. The study tracked 27 women and 13 men who were part of a 1,000-employee migration from a traditional walled-in office to a new, open-space environment and included interviews and intensive periods of observation. As the researchers from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire wrote in their paper, which was published in Gender, Work and Organization, the move created a “subtly sexist” environment.
Why? It seems that although some employees saw the new offices as more liberating and promoting better equality, the no-privacy environment caused a bit of voyeurism — most notably among the organization’s male workers. “Visibility enabled these men to judge and rank women according to their sexual attractiveness, just like men on the nudist beaches,” the researchers wrote.
Yes, that’s right. Men were watching the women a little too much. They were evaluating their appearances and making comments. According to this report from Co. Design, one woman in the study said that the men on her team would “mark” the attractiveness of female job candidates when they came into the office for interviews. Others found themselves avoiding certain parts of their office to avoid the scrutiny of their male colleagues sitting there. Multiple women told the researchers that “there isn’t anywhere that you don’t feel watched.”
Many of the women also said the move brought on increased anxiety. Some said they started dressing differently and wearing more makeup to try to boost their professional status because more people seemed to be watching them. A middle-aged respondent said she even put a fan on her desk to help with hot flashes in case others would notice.
“I just have to sort of work through it,” she told the researchers.