5 Ways Your Office's Open Floor Plan Is Surprisingly Sexist

Monkey Business / AdobeStock


Monkey Business / AdobeStock

AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
June 13, 2024 at 2:53PM UTC
While open-floor office plans can bring coworkers closer and invite communication among all levels of employees, many workers take issue with them for a multitude of reasons — they can be distracting, invasive and put everyone in the same playing field despite hierarchical status. For example, as The Wall Street Journal has pointed out, some Apple employees have said, “Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting.”
Apple employees aren't alone. In fact, two thirds of respondents in a University of Sydney study on workplace satisfaction reported an open office environment and, in general, showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than those in enclosed office layouts. Between 20 and 40 percent of open-plan office workers expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for reasons of visual privacy.
While many workers tend to feel negatively about open office plans, however, a wealth of recent research suggests that these spaces can be largely sexist, impacting women in the workplace more so than men. Open-floor office plans can affect the way women dress, act and communicate, and they can be breeding grounds for sexual harassment. Here are five ways they can hurt women in the workplace.
1. They change expectations for women's dress.
According to research, open-plan offices change the way women decide to dress for work, since leaders tend to wear more expensive clothes and jackets, and their subordinates tend to choose cardigans to show their deferences in levels. Authors of the study, published in the journal Gender, Work and Organisation, found that workers subconsciously altered their behavior to fit in, and they'd dress differently to suit an "environment of constant visibility." Likewise, some women dress differently because they're conscious of the male gaze in their office, devoid of a layout that lets male colleagues know that they're "important."  
2. They make some women feel "constantly watched."
The same study published in Gender, Work and Organization, found that while open-floor office plans may be "designed to enchant rather than control overtly, and to encourage movement rather than fixity," they can make some women feel uncomfortable for being constantly watched. Researchers Alison Hirst of Anglia Ruskin University and Christina Schwabenland of the University of Bedfordshire explored the process of a local government moving its 1,100 employees from traditional offices to one big open office over the course of three years in the U.K., and, while some female employees reported feeling like the new office space promoted equality, others became hyper-aware of being constantly watched and their appearance constantly evaluated. Many said: “There isn’t anywhere that you don’t feel watched.”
3. They make some women feel scrutinized for their appearance.
The architect behind the aforementioned study compared his design to a nudist beach. Women are already scrutinized for their appearances at a far greater extent than men, and when put in an open-floor office, many report feeling that scrutiny. Women are already hyper-aware of their looks with regards to everything down to the makeup they put on their faces. That's because "attractive" people earn roughly 20 percent more than “average” people, and women who wear makeup are considered more competent than those who don’t — but women are tasked with having to appear competent but not "unprofessional" by applying too much. An open-floor plan that calls attention to women's appearances can exacerbate the power dynamics already at play. 
4. They can amplify sexual harassment.
When women work in private offices, they have privacy and what should feel like safe spaces. But those are taken away in open-floor offices. One woman told Fast Co.Design: "I eventually discovered that not only was I being watched all the time, (at first I thought it was just my imagination) but then my boss started following me around. If I went upstairs to make a phone call to have privacy, he would go upstairs to get water, or tea, or something. Even when I would use the side rooms, he followed me ‘to grab something’ in one of these rooms, and made sure to check my screen to see what I was doing. It wasn’t long before I realized this guy was a little obsessed with me... It turned out to be a long-term disaster when I didn’t respond to his advances and dreamy-eyed gazes. I had to leave in a huff, and I do not regret it."
5. They make private conversations more difficult.
Open offices mean that there's virtually no privacy, which makes difficult conversatins that much more difficult to have. As evermore women are reporting sexual harassment and sexism in general in the workplace, they've limited private spaces to share their concerns with human resources and management. Speaking with someone on a one-to-one basis without the fear of being overheard, judged or worse becomes a challenge.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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