Maybe you have a group of diverse leaders in your office of whom you’re super proud. You offer an exhaustive list of benefits to your employees that support women in the workplace. And you make an honest effort to pay all employees fairly and equally. But your workplace may still be subtly sexist.
It’s possible that the design of your company’s physical workspace itself could be contributing to reasons women find it harder to advance. Not entirely sure how a space can be sexist? There are numerous examples, unfortunately, of how unconscious bias has filtered its way into how the world around is designed — and who it’s designed to serve and protect.
As The Guardian has pointed out, these examples range anywhere from the relatively benign — struggling to reach a top shelf that was designed with male heights in mind — to the deadly. Women, as The Guardian reports, are up to 71% more likely than men to be injured in car crashes and 17% more likely to die from those injuries. And when the majority of car safety tests are performed using male-sized dummies, it hasn’t hard to see the ramifications for women of male-centered (and often, not coincidentally, male-produced) design.
How exactly does this kind of bias-informed design impact women who work in office spaces? Below, we heard from women who’ve seen this brand of sexism in action.
1. A lack of mothers’ rooms
Tons of forward-thinking companies are designing offices with all kinds of amenities these days — everything from arcade rooms and beer gardens to extra-comfortable lounge areas and communal kitchen spaces. But not all of them are keeping women’s unique needs in mind.
“My office has no breastfeeding rooms, and I’m a new mom,” says Angela, a receptionist for a small startup that, she says, has almost everything else she needs. “We have everything else on-site — even beers on tap in the kitchen! — but we don’t have space for new moms like me to take care of our business. I guess the company didn’t really think about that when designing the space. It’s a small tech startup with mostly men in the office, so maybe that’s why.”
2. Cold temperatures
“My office is always so freezing that I have to wear a blanket around me at all times — even though I dress in multiple layers to come to work,” says Marissa Lynn, an HR professional. “Because I work in human resources, I have some control over how we manage the office climate, since my job is, partially, to keep employees comfortable. And I know that the women in the office tend to complain about the temperature a lot more than the men!”
Offices are notoriously colder for women than they are for men — it’s simple science. A recent study actually found that the metabolic rate of young women who perform light office work is a lot lower than the standard values for men who do the same work. This means that the formula actually overestimates female metabolic rate by as much as 35%, so offices are, on average, about five degrees too cold for women, but not for men.
3. Open floor plans
“I work in an open office, so my desk is out in the middle of everyone — anyone sitting behind me can read right over my shoulder and keep an eye on what I’m doing all day,” says Suzanne, a writer. “It’s fine because I’m doing my job; it’s not like I’m messing around on my work computer all day. But it does make me feel watched and uncomfortable. If ever I have to have a private conversation with someone at work, for example, I have to find an open office where we can go. And I just feel like I can’t always wear whatever I want or act how I normally would because I’m intimidated sitting in the middle of everyone at all times. I don’t think the guys in my office have these worries since there are a lot more of them than there are women like me.”
Suzanne isn’t alone in feeling like she is constantly under watch and has to dress differently because of her open floor plan. In fact, many argue open floor plans are surprisingly sexist for a whole host of reasons. According to a study published in Gender, Work and Organization, 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. And, according to research, open-plan offices change the way women decide to dress for work to show their deferences in hierarchy, as well.
4. Male-designed safety equipment
Studies show that workplace injuries are actually increasing among women but decreasing among men. This may be due to the fact the most workplace safety equipment (read: boots, goggles, gloves, etc.) meet a standard that’s been designed with the male body in mind. In fact, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH) references a U.S. study of union carpenters that discovered that women have higher rates of sprains, strains and nerve conditions of the wrist and forearm than men do; while the research isn’t conclusive, it could very well be because of male-designed safety equipment.
5. Man-sized technology
Like safety equipment, some technology is also designed for men. All of the technology that a company uses — like computers and phones, for example — may have been designed with a standard male hand in mind. Tons of research suggests that women have, on average, smaller hands than men. So, if you consider the fact that the average smartphone is about 5.5 inches, it makes sense that it’s easy for men to fit it comfortably in one hand but not so simple for women to do the same.