With the first female major party candidate running for president this year, there was a lot of discussion of the "Glass Ceiling." According to the 2016 Women in the Workplace Study, the so-called Glass Ceiling is still firmly intact when it comes to many companies. This comprehensive study on the state of women in corporate America included 132 companies and 4.6 million people. What it found was that across the board, men consistently win more promotions and confidently head towards an executive role, while women -- who make up half of the entry-level workforce -- end up holding less than one-fifth of C-suite roles. In addition to very real gender biases, pay gaps and other obstacles women face at work, it turns out that the physical structure of our workspaces may also be holding women back. Why? Women are naturally more collaborative and egalitarian and, according to a study from the University of Toronto, do better in open office set-ups that promote those styles, while men prefer the hierarchical nature of private offices.
This poses several questions for the future of the workplace. As companies strive to prioritize the success of highly-qualified women, will office design change? How can business leaders balance the needs of both the men and the women in their organizations? Should companies weigh women's needs and working preferences more seriously? More importantly, can purposeful planning coupled with an understanding of human behavior lead to a significant cultural shift?
Some of the top workplace designers shared their best tips for designing a workplace that supports success for female employees.
Tip 1: Create "support" and "departure" spaces.
Juliè Gauthier, Director of the Houston office at lauckgroup, an interior architecture firm, says, "While smart companies recognize the differences between men and women and their needs in a work environment, this becomes complicated when put into practice. Accommodation of the majority of users often takes precedent, especially in larger corporations. Still, we see gender recognition and accommodation in support spaces, like Mother's Rooms (also called Wellness Rooms), Restroom and Shower Facilities geared toward different genders, and Lounge/Break Areas designed to address the needs of both men or women." Gauthier emphasizes the need for communal lunchrooms, in particular. "Women are more likely to pack lunch, and appreciate a departure space to eat and socialize in, separate from their main work area," she notes. These informal gathering spaces help build a stronger sense of community and facilitate collaboration.
Tip 2: Work alongside the Human Resource department to understand needs.
"Health and wellness is a topic that we discuss early in the planning stages of any corporate/commercial project," Gauthier explains. "Design strategies that accommodate wellness and implementing programming that supports the specific gender demographics of an organization is a smart way to create loyalty among employees. Consider the WELL Building Standard, a certification system that focuses on health and wellness in the built environment. A WELL certified project requires the cooperation of the Design/Facilities Team, the HR department and IT system administrators to create an environment and programming that supports healthy users. Developing workplace design alongside human resources results in an environment that values and supports human capital more strategically."
Tip 3: Consider female comfort in the workplace.
Comfort is an important happiness driver for women - everything from temperature controls to less obvious aspects like light levels play into their daily comfort in a workspace. Some areas to focus on include:
- Evaluating safety during workplace design and communicate it to employees.
"As a basic need, women really need to feel safe in their work environment. In the current heightened political climate, more women as well as men are asking questions like, 'Do I feel safe in this environment?' 'Where will I shelter in place in an emergency situation?' 'Do I have reasonable access to the fastest escape route?' Thoughts that used to sit at the back of our consciousness have moved up in importance," Gauthier explains.
- Provide stylish, convenient storage
Jeff Miller, VP of Design at Poppin, adds, "In the open office, the reduction of paper filing coupled with the challenges of square footage per person yields an opportunity for more storage of personal effects. Women's accessories such as purses, sneakers, or a sweater are often relegated to the floor, desktop, or chair back; offering personal cabinets or incorporated hooks at the desk can provide alternative more stylish and appropriate storage."
- Promote openness and transparency
Women in leadership roles are helping to push forward social change in the workspace, creating environments that support openness, transparency, and collegial interaction. Workspaces and furniture need to be designed to accommodate more impromptu discussions with flexible layers of privacy. According to Brigitte Preston, Principal of Design at lauckgroup, "Women look at things differently than men. Men are often driven toward the success of a specific final outcome. They see the end-goal and are usually driving towards that with their own opinions and expertise. Women are more open to collaborative process and prefer to include multiple constituencies into the process. Design should accommodate this difference in style. "
Create an office that is more like home
Scott Lesizza, Principal at Workwell Partners says, "There is no question that there has been a dramatic shift both in the number of women in the workplace, as well as the percentage of women at senior levels. It is not a coincidence that a rapid shift in workplace design coincided. In just 20 years, we have done away with the more rigid and hierarchical workplace design -- the dark wood mahogany corner offices down on Wall street that smelled perpetually of cigar smoke! -- to the more elegant open office spaces of today. It's not a coincidence that the women in charge of making key design decisions at home are also making them at the office. That aesthetic means that modern offices look and feel a lot like upscale homes, with cheerful colors and high quality fabrics and furniture.
Understand feminine values and how they shape office design:
"There is something more communal and giving about the office space today that is uniquely feminine," Lesizza continues. "I look out of my office and everyone is talking, in groups of primarily women. The women in the office are often the ones more willing to train and nurture new employees. The women are more likely to prefer working in groups, eating in groups in the designated kitchen area, and continuing this socialization outside of the office. Offices that are designed around encouraging this type of interaction supports many women's natural style. According to many studies, it is also a better way of working, creating more loyalty among employees, and providing a strong team-like environment versus the old school "every man for himself" office space. As these values are more appreciated and valued in our culture, they are going to be reflected in the look and functionality of offices. Offices are going to be designed to foster traits that women value, just as spaces 20 years ago were crafted to challenge and motivate the male ego."
While no single design choice is going to break the glass ceiling by itself, by designing an office environment with female needs and work styles in mind you can help your employees feel more comfortable and be more productive