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Do Open Offices Encourage Sexism?


Open office plans, not too long ago seen as a radical way of encouraging engagement and innovation in the workplace, have lost their luster in recent years. And they may have a downside that has not yet been considered.

Open office plans could be subtly reinforcing sexism by making both men and women more conscious of a woman's appearance, a U.K. research study by Anglia Ruskin University's Alison Hirst and the University of Bedfordshire's Christina Schwabenland found. The study, reported by Co.Design, was conducted over a period of three years with 40 respondents in a government office in the U.K. that had recently transitioned to an open office plan.

Hirst and Schwabenland found that women persistently were more conscious of being observed and judged based on their appearance in an open office, with one respondent telling researchers, “there isn’t anywhere that you don’t feel watched.” The men interviewed reported no such increase in awareness.

The architect of the office in question remarked that the environment would take some getting used to, much like a nude beach, where the feeling of vulnerability passes after acclimation to everyone being on level terms. But Hirst and Schwabenland disputed that conception of nude beaches, and said just like at those beaches, groups of men in open office plans tend to feel empowered to judge — or even rank — women based on their appearance.

Female respondents to the study found themselves dressing more businesslike to be seen as having more status, and applying more makeup as a defense against the feeling of being judged.

In the age of #MeToo, when so much of professional society is being re-examined for sexism, workplace design could be the next area to go under the microscope.