As anyone who watched Trump loom over Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate knows, violating a woman's expectation of physical distance, especially from the back, is a classic way for a man to establish dominance over a woman.

In offices, men often loom-from-the-back to establish dominance but the behavior often has sexual undertones. In addition to establishing dominance over a woman, looming provides creeps with an opportunity peep down her neckline.

Yes, I'm ashamed to admit there are men who do crap like this. I'd wager there's at least one of these creeps in every medium-size office. While that's tame stuff compared to, say, the "kink room" at UploadVR, it's repulsive and disrespectful.

Which brings me to the open plan office.

A defining characteristic of the open plan office is that people sit with their backs to public areas. This position makes it much easier for harassers to loom over women, with the always available excuse of looking over her shoulder at her screen.

As evidence of this, I searched "sexual harassment office" in our stock photo library and about a third of them showed an over-the-shoulder peep. The behavior is so well represented that it's almost archetypal.

Looming from the back is more difficult when women have private offices or even cubicles, because then the woman implicitly "owns" more of the space surrounding her, especially if she can turn her chair to face the door or cubicle entrance.

While a determined harasser will no doubt find a way to harass, there's less plausible deniability when a guy has to stand on tiptoe to peer over a cubicle wall or maneuver his way into the woman's "owned" work area.

It's probably no coincidence that sexual harassment in high tech (and the consequent and parallel devaluing of women's contributions) has increased hand-in-hand with the popularity of the open plan office.

And now the open plan office has spread far beyond Silicon Valley and is all the rage in most other industries. That's a huge victory for the unrepentant creeps of the working world. For working women, maybe not so much.

Needless to say, the real problem is men behaving badly rather than the office layouts. Even so, an office environment shouldn't make it easier for creeps to act creepy. Apparently, though, the (mostly male) CEOs who seem to love these open plan offices don't see it that way.

Or maybe they like it just fine.

Published on: Sep 19, 2017
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