New study explains how an open office plan can be sexist

Open office plans are designed to break down the physical and metaphoric walls between us, but a new study found that they were guilty of putting up new kinds of barriers between employees, reinforcing the same gendered hierarchies that they aimed to deconstruct.

In the study published in Gender, Work and Organization, researchers at Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire followed 1,000 U.K. government employees as they transitioned from a traditional office design to a more open plan one in their new building. Now, the office space had transparent glass everywhere, identical desks, and undefined large spaces for collaboration. Everyone could see everyone, and that was just how the architect of the building, who was kept anonymous in the study, liked it.

As he bluntly put it, “I think it’s like going to a nudist 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. I think that’s what’ll happen, they’ll get on with it.”

But not everyone did get over it.

The unintended side effects of these new design features, the researchers learned in interviews with employees, was the increased sense of surveillance for everyone, but particularly women, at work. Women felt more exposed. As one female manager put it, “If you’re upset about something, there’s nowhere to go. Where can you go? All you can do is go to the Ladies [bathroom], so there’s nowhere that you can go and speak to somebody on a one-to-one basis where you can’t be observed.”

And the eyeballs observing coworkers were predominantly male. “Although visibility placed curbs on this kind of behavior — ‘watching’ had to be done surreptitiously — the building provided a space where it was much easier for men to exercise this kind of ‘male gaze,’ ” researchers found in their observations.

Open office plans make women more image-conscious

Aware of the new surveillance, women started dressing differently at work to manage their image. Traditional offices signal rank through fancy desks and door labels — now women signaled their status through clothes. One female senior manager made the switch from wearing cardigans to jackets because she said, “A cardi says admin. There’s a whole subtle ranking and I think for women it’s particularly significant.”

The more senior your role, the fancier your clothes got.

“Successful accomplishment as a high-status networker required dressing up (wearing a jacket rather than a ‘cardi’ which might cause one to be misidentified as ‘admin’), whereas taking up a lower status role was accomplished by dressing down and ‘staying put’ in one’s own office,” the researchers wrote. Senior staffers became more likely to move around more the office, while lowly employees became less likely to venture out from their area of the office.

To be fair, not all women felt oppressed by the new space. “They spoke of new freedoms to be more fully themselves; they walked across and confronted people; they looked actively at others; they requested adaptations to the loos; and they accepted and enjoyed being visible,” the study noted.

But for others, the open office space became a constant warden who was watching their every move. As the researchers concluded, “There appeared to be such an implicit ranking system in these aspects, so that senior women presented themselves and acted in a way that expressed ‘look at me!’ and their junior counterparts sought to achieve the opposite move and blend into the background.”