Open-plan offices leave women subject to sexism at work, research suggests

Research shows that sexism is more prevalent in open-concept offices because women feel overexposed and have no privacy.

Women in one office were rated on attractiveness by male workers, says researcher

A three-year study into open-plan offices found that the environment can make female workers feel pressurised to pay more attention to their appearance. (Shutterstock / Warpboyz)
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Open-plan office layouts were created to foster communication and cut bureaucracy, but they can leave you with nowhere to hide, and can even foster sexism at work, according to one researcher.

"There was one example of quite bad behaviour that I heard about: a group of men ranking female job applicants as they came in for interviews," said Alison Hirst, director of postgraduate research at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, U.K.

Based on an applicant's attractiveness, the men gave them "marks out of 10," she said.

Hirst spent three years studying the transition of 1,100 employees from a traditional government office in Britain to a new open-plan environment. The resulting research, co-authored by Christina Schwabenland, was published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization in March.

What they discovered, Hirst told The Current's guest host Mike Finnerty, is that open-plan offices inadvertently lead to sexism at work.

The women she encountered were more aware of the possibility of "being observed at any time and any place in the building," she said.

Alison Hirst felt compelled to borrow an expensive suit and wear make-up while working in an open-plan office. (Submitted by Alison Hirst)

"[They were] taking a great deal more care than previously about their appearance," Hirst said, "spending lots of money on clothes, and dressing in a way that expressed their status.

"One person said to me: 'I used to wear jeans — we do not wear jeans here.'"

During the time she spent in the open-plan office, studying worker behaviour, Hirst's own habits began to change. 

"I had to be more immaculate than I've ever had to be before," she told Finnerty, adding that she borrowed an expensive suit and wore make-up, something she didn't normally bother with.

"To fit in and be inconspicuous in this building, one had to be smart."

Open planning has promoted equality in our homes, and created a trend for having two kitchens, John Brown tells Mike Finnerty. 3:34

The preference for open-plan workspaces shows no sign of abating, and that has implications for privacy.

"This sort of building is fantastic if you're feeling good," Hirst said.

"But if anything has gone wrong, or you're upset about anything, then it's a hard place to be," she added.

If you are returning to work from a bereavement, or have had a bad appraisal, she said, "there's nowhere that you can't be seen, apart from the toilet."

Good design can help with privacy problems, said Elizabeth Von Lehe, the head of design and brand strategy for an architecture firm in New York. (Eva Fryscak/CBC)

Privacy in the workplace is important, agreed Elizabeth Von Lehe, head of design and brand strategy for the New York-based architecture and design firm HDR.

"We are all still human beings who need our environment to provide for private moments," she told Finnerty.

"Some jobs require almost constant privacy," she added. "I don't know if there are any HR people out there that would want to have a difficult conversation in the middle of an open office."

Good office design and planning — such as considering sight lines, team adjacency, private versus public space — can mitigate privacy issues, she said. But design can't solve gender inequality.

"If women in the office don't feel like they're being judged on the quality of their contribution, that's something that needs to be tackled by the leadership of that company," she said.

"No space design is going to fix it."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


Written by Michael O'Halloran. This segment was produced by Network Producers, Suzanne Dufresne in Winnipeg and Michael O'Halloran in Calgary.

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