Open Offices Can Pose Threat to Women: Study

  May 25, 2018

By Greg Zimmerman

The backlash against open office plans in institutional and commercial facilities seems to have hit a fever pitch. The latest development: Women feel much more uncomfortable in open offices than they do in other types of office space.

That is the finding of a recent study of a British government office. It found that women in open offices “feel more scrutinized for their appearance, subject to staring by male peers and more self-conscious about their status in the organization,” according to this Chicago Tribune article. The study quotes the all-male architecture team of the open office, one of whom defended the design choice by using the tone-deaf comparison of an open office and a nude beach: “You know, first you're a little bit worried that everyone's looking at you, but then you think, hang on, everybody else is naked, no one's looking at each other. That's what'll happen, they'll get on with it."

The story goes on to quote several women who whole-heartedly agree with the British study’s findings, sharing anecdotes about having felt like a “zoo animal” in an open office plan, as one example.

What is the solution? In a previous QuickRead, we wrote that a mix of private and open spaces might work. Beyond that, using sound-dampening and soundmasking strategies is essential. But any solution to an open office problem really depends on the organization – its culture and, really, budget for office space. One benefit of open office plans is that they are more cost-efficient, especially when strategies like hotelling are incorporated. But cost-efficient does not always mean most comfortable. Of utmost importance is that all occupants feel safe in the space. If you hear about a situation where someone is feeling harassed, human resources must be involved immediately.

This Quick Read was submitted by Greg Zimmerman, executive editor, Building Operating Management. Read his cover story profiling Northwestern University’s vice president of facilities management, John D’Angelo.


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