A few months ago, I suggested that open-plan offices create plausible deniability for sexual harassment. And, last week, I pointed out that air conditioning in most open-plan offices is optimized for men wearing suits, making women less productive.

I also pointed out, in a separate column, that because there's no analogy in women's wear to the ubiquitous men's business suit, women must expend extra time and money on the clothes they wear each day.

Well, this morning my editor sent me a link to a study by Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire of 1,000 employees who, over the course of three years, moved from traditional offices into an open-plan facility. Even though the study wasn't focused on gender issues, it found

... numerous examples of people, particularly women, changing their behavior and dress as a result of working in an environment of constant visibility. 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. Women in particular felt anxious about the idea of being constantly watched, and felt they had to dress in a certain way.

Tellingly, some women felt intimidated when walking into areas of the building dominated by men, because their presence--visible from everywhere in the room--made them the immediate center of attention because of how they looked, rather than their role in the company.

Needless to say, men in the workplace have been ogling women ever since women started working in offices, but open-plan offices can turn what's intermittent if annoying into something that's unrelenting.

The emphasis that open-plan offices put upon women's appearance also creates a major disadvantage for women who don't fit within our dominant culture's rather limited definition of female beauty. 

Men don't face this problem, because they're less likely to be judged on their appearance and, in many office environments, can simply camouflage themselves in standard business suits.

It's seemed obvious to me for some time that there must be SOME reason that corporations have massively migrated to open-plan offices, even though there is overwhelming scientific evidence that they make everyone less productive.

Somehow, it doesn't surprise me--considering that male-dominated top management has been driving the transformation--that part of the hidden agenda was nudging women to focus on being eye candy rather than focus on their careers.

Published on: May 9, 2018