The average office worker sits at their desk for 6,5 hours a day. That is 1,700 hours a year. So, the office environment better be nice for all workers. Yet, men office workers often find themselves in a more comfortable position than their colleagues of different genders.
First, as goes for many products, non-adjustable office desks and chairs are designed based on the height of the average male. So, people who are significantly taller or shorter compared to this average height may find themselves either with their knees pressed against their desk or with their feet hovering above the ground. Since women are generally shorter than men, they are more likely to be given a desk that’s too tall. Indeed, numerous women complain about office furniture that’s clearly not made for them. Similarly, women often experience their office environment as too cold, because the standard room temperature is based on the body of a 40-year-old, 70kg male.
A second issue is that many office environments lack a designated space for breastfeeding. People who breastfeed are, supposedly, expected to pump in the bathroom. Given that it’s not unusual for employers to offer their employees massage therapists, nap pods, and to even make the office pet-friendly, the lack of breastfeeding facilities is rather painful. The same goes for the lack of rooms for silence and prayer, used by workers for religious practice or to safeguard their mental wellbeing. Luckily, change seems to be on its way as especially bigger institutions like universities, libraries, public buildings as well as corporate employers are starting to accommodate breastfeeding facilities and prayer rooms.
Lastly, the layout of offices is gendered. Many people work in what’s called an open office landscape, which became popular in the 1950s for it promised to promote interaction amongst workers and decentralise power. In reality, however, most office workers dislike open offices, as they get interrupted all the time and feel like they are under the constant surveillance of their colleagues. Especially women report that they feel watched and sometimes objectified or sexualised by co-workers. One study links this experience of being observed to the finding that women working in open offices dress to signal their status; women in more senior positions started dressing more smartly, and women in lower positions began to wear more casual wear. This finding highlights that many women have internalised the norm that they must care about how they look.
The former illustrates that the open office landscape is far from ideal. Some, however, get to escape the hustle and bustle of the open work floor. The most senior workers are allocated a private office, oftentimes located on the exterior sides and upper floor of office buildings, thus providing more natural daylight. Indeed, privacy and daylight are great measures of occupational status. And it’s still men who hold most senior positions. Their offices are buffered by (often women) receptionists and secretaries who safeguard the boss’s privacy, but whose own desk areas can be freely walked into by anyone at any time.
In sum, the physical environment many of us occupy every day is designed in ways that benefit men and senior workers over women and assisting personnel. Increasing office temperatures, arranging adjustable desks and chairs for everyone and creating breastfeeding and prayer facilities are easy fixes that can and should be implemented right now. The perhaps deeper problem of discriminatory office layouts should make us think about the gendered assumptions underlying these physical arrangements. Why should women workers and assisting personnel always be available for others to disturb them? Why do women working in open offices feel they are exposed to the gaze of their colleagues?