How office design can isolate women

Why CNN anchor told colleague her salary
Why CNN anchor told colleague her salary

Tearing down cubicle walls doesn't always open up conversation.

Some companies turn to open-plan office designs — hallmarked with wide tables, glass rooms and low partitions — as a way to promote collaboration and camaraderie. But according to new research, some women may want more walls, not less.

Over the course of a three-year study, women in open-plan offices reported feeling exposed or monitored as they went about their work day. Some women told researchers they longed for the privacy of an office or even just a cubicle. Other women said the updated office design prompted them to change their appearances, because they felt more visible than ever before. They bought more makeup or invested in new wardrobes because of the heightened contact they felt in such close quarters.

Related: How a woman's appearance affects her career

"Women said 'There just isn't anywhere to go where you can't be seen,'" says Alison Hirst, professor at Anglia Ruskin University and researcher behind the study. "So some people said 'Well, I had an appraisal, and it went really badly and I was upset, but there I was in this visible, transparent meeting room and people outside could see' or 'I can be seen even just having my lunch. There's nowhere to sit and do ordinary things like have my lunch where I can't be seen.'"

Women may be more sensitive to this because they know what's at stake. Research shows a woman's appearance can figure prominently into her overall success at work. But managing exteriors can be tricky; there's both a bonus and a penalty to being viewed as "attractive" by your colleagues.

This constant pressure to monitor appearances, Hirst says, may be part of the reason women in her study didn't like their new arrangements.

"Women are more likely to be looked at and assessed on the basis of their sexual attractiveness than men are, that's at the core of it," she says. "Our culture sort of endorses and approves that this is a proper way of going about things, so I think the men didn't feel that they were being evaluated on the basis of their attractiveness."

Turns out the original promise of such open plans — happier, more collaborative employees — may itself be flawed.

Related: This is what women have to do to become CEO

Another study conducted by Rachel Morrison, senior research lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, looked at whether or not open office plans really did promote the collaboration and conversation, as many bosses hoped. (Surprise: they actually had the opposite effect.)

But as Morrison began combing through some new, unpublished research on the same topic, she immediately noticed how women, specifically, mentioned feeling "watched" or "monitored" in these spaces. One woman reported "it can sometimes feel like you are being watched or even micro-managed more intensely due to the absence of physical barriers found in a more traditional office environment." Another talked about how "your coming and going is visible; if you arrive slightly later or leave slightly earlier, you feel the eyes on you."

Morrison has both her own office and the ability to work from home. But she says can imagine how some women would feel being "watched" in such an open workspace.

"I think there's a real unconscious bias here toward the way that people work," she says. "There's an assumption that 'if it suits me, it suits everyone,' an assumption that people want constant contact with each other all the time, that people don't mind being viewed, that people can negotiate that status without really having to think too much about it — and those are all quite masculine perspectives."

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