Design for the Sexes

April 1, 2005
An exploration of the impact of workplace design on gender differences and the role it plays in shaping the office of the future.
By Sandra L.CrockerIn prehistoric times, gender roles were far different from what we know today. The men of the cave hunted all day, dragged dinner back to the home fire, and sat side-by-side at the entrance looking for any possible signs of danger. The women sat in a circle around the fire, preparing the meal, tending to the children, working and talking together. What has changed and what has stayed the same?WORKPLACE, DESIGN AND GENDER: WHAT IS RELEVANT?When looking at the impact of workplace design on gender differences, it is first necessary to define the terms involved. A workplace is simply a place where work is done. Workplaces have been caves, farms, factories, vessels, homes and arenas. Workplaces in today's cultures may appear to be more complex, but generally serve the same purposes. Now, as in the past, workplaces are designed around people. The workplaces addressed in this article are what we call "white-collar" offices. Becoming more "business casual," these spaces are occupied by upper- and mid-management, often in private offices, as well as in open-plan areas. Workplace design proposes office arrangement. The design addressed here is the actual arrangements of desks, work surfaces and seating within spaces. Over the years, there have been jobs or roles traditionally filled by one gender or the other. In one century, a job traditionally filled by females, such as secretary in the 18th century, may have been filled almost exclusively by the other gender in another century. The ratio of men to women has also changed over the centuries. The percentage of males and females in the "white-collar" workplace has significantly changed in the last 50 years, from 36 percent fewer females than males in 1950, to 22 percent more females than males in 2000. An equal number of men and women are in management today compared to the 86 percent male-manager figure of 1950.


  • Does workplace design affect men and women differently and do individual offices need to be designed differently for men versus women?
  • Do traditional offices support men more than women and does the "office of the future" need to be totally different from the office of the past?

To fully understand the issues involved in these questions, it is first necessary to take a look at what exists today, and what has been written about gender and workplace design.

Workplace DesignThere are a number of aspects that make up any workplace. The main purpose of a workplace is to productively support an organization's mission. "Productive workplaces are places where people learn and grow as they cooperate to improve an organization's performance." (Weisbord, 1988.) A comfortable workplace setting should provide six essential elements: shelter and security, social contact, task accomplishment, symbolic identification, pleasure and growth (Steele, 2000). Shelter and security are basic human survival needs. Social contact helps us identify ourselves and communicate with others. Task accomplishment is both the process and product of our work. Symbols help us identify where we are and who is around us. Pleasure and growth are the icing on the workplace cake.Environmental psychology tells us, "Humans are goal-directed beings who act upon their environments and who, in turn, are influenced by it. The environment frequently operates below our level of awareness. It is when our environment is changed that we become most aware of it, because it is at this point that we consciously begin to adapt." (Ittelson, 1974.) It is also apparent to us when it does not change and we need it to change. This is where we begin to look at how well our workplace surroundings are supporting our needs as men and women.Looking more closely at what is truly personal space, environmental psychologist Irwin Altman notes it is the area immediately surrounding the body. He refers to it as the "personal bubble." (Altman, 1975.) "Personal space involves an invisible boundary around the self, intrusion into which creates tension or discomfort." Private offices and work-stations are the territories that surround our workday personal bubbles. Seating arrangements in private offices and workstations form the convergence of "personal bubbles" as we interact with others who come into our spaces. Some research concludes that males and females have differently shaped personal spaces. Women tend to be more disturbed by spatial invasion from the side, and men find invasion from the front most unsettling. Males prefer face-to-face seating, when there is a barrier such as a desk, while females prefer side-by-side seating arrangements. Concerning overall sex differences, men generally have larger personal-space zones than women, and people generally maintain greater distances from men than from women. Studies also show that members of mixed-sex dyads typically have been found to stand or sit in closer proximity to one another than members of same-sex pairs, and women are more willing than men to engage in eye contact, even at close range. This leads us to look more closely at gender differences.GenderSex is a biological term referring to reproductive apparatus and chromosomal composition. Gender is a term used in a social context. The first words our human ears hear when we are born are, "It's a boy," or, "It's a girl." This biological difference sets us apart more than any single characteristic. It makes our bodies look and behave differently. Our sex makes us male or female in every cell and function of our bodies. Because of our sex, we are brought up in distinctly different cultures. People talk to, gesture to, touch and look at us differently depending on our gender. As a result, men and women grow up to think, feel and act differently. Sex differences influence how people behave. Gender differences influence how people react. People bring with them the basic survival messages they have learned. In our culture today, boys are generally reared in a hierarchical, pyramid-shaped environment. Most sport teams are perfect examples of such systems. Boys' games tend to be goal-focused. Boys tend to play in larger spaces and with win-lose results. Boys can play with their enemies and compete with their friends. Conversations are negotiations for "one up or one down" positions. Men have learned, "I must compete with others to survive." Girls are generally brought up in a collaborative, flat social structure. They play games involving relationships and shared, equal power. Girls' games are about relating to others. Girls tend to play in smaller spaces. They tend to play "taking turns games" and often have no winners or losers. Conversations are negotiations for closeness. Women have learned, "I must relate to others to survive."In the early 1980s, Deborah Tannen and Pat Heim looked at videotapes of children and young adults of various ages placed in a room and instructed to talk to each other. Among other things, the tapes reveal that across ages, girls predominantly turn their chairs in order to face each other during the conversation and anchor their gazes on one another. They take turns speaking while looking at each other more often than looking away. In the tapes, the space between the females remains small and they often touch each other. In contrast, at every age level, the boys and men are less directly aligned with each other in terms of body posture and gaze. They often angle their chairs even to the point of sitting parallel to each other, and they anchor their gazes away, occasionally glancing at each other. Predominantly, they do not touch each other. Pat Heim looked further at this work in her video, "Conflict: The Rules of Engagement," where she suggests that this natural seating orchestration is interrupted when boys and girls grow up and get married. If females prefer to face the person to whom they are speaking while holding an anchoring gaze on this person, and males prefer to sit parallel to their counterpart and look away, Heim wonders what happens when females and males join together in conversation. What happens when they get married? The question posed here: What happens when they go to work together?Campfires, Watering Holes and CavesGiven the facts, whether we like it or not, humans are animal. We have animal instincts and at some level are connected to our cave ancestors. Are men who sit in restaurants facing the door instinctively watching for danger? Are women choosing to sit at a round conference table sitting around the home fire? Educator David D. Thornburg, Ph.D., in his book Campfires in Cyberspace, looks at several classic icons that relate to men and women in workplaces. Thornburg identifies "campfires" as the "informational spaces where we go to get information from experts." In the office, campfires would be formal presentations where information flows basically in one direction, from the giver to the receiver. "Watering holes are conversational spaces where we go to share what we have learned with our peers." In the office, this can be the water cooler, coffee bar, copy machine area or any informal place where men and women gather. Watering holes allow people space to give and receive thoughts and ideas. "Caves are conceptual spaces where we go to reflect and elaborate in private on what we have learned."Thornburg suggests that we need either isolation to some degree or an environment that supports the creativity it takes to develop and expand on what we have learned. "The cave is the place where information is turned into knowledge, and where knowledge can be turned into wisdom" (Thornburg, 1996). John Gray, Ph.D., suggests that men need cave time. Thornburg suggests that both men and women need alone time to reflect. Survey, Men and Women in the WorkplaceA number of surveys have been given to men and women in the workplace who work in various-sized companies and in different kinds of work groups. These surveys look at level of control over the physical environment desired, hierarchy versus teaming, and collaborative versus competitive. Let us first look at privacy and level of control desired over the workspace environment. Men and women in today's workplace want and need some level of privacy. Men, in general, may need slightly more time alone in order to better process information. Women tend to process verbally and may need more informal conversation areas than men. If given the opportunity to have a door, women, generally, would have it open more often than men. Thermal environment is a "hot" button. Women, in general, experience much more discomfort when it comes to temperature. For years, offices have been heated and cooled to keep the average worker wearing a suit and tie comfortable. With changing dress codes it would be logical to assume that indoor climates have changed too, but that is not necessarily true. Women surveyed expressed a lower level of control over their thermal environment. This may be another reason to look at using raised floors with HVAC in the floor. Individual controls in private offices and in open workspaces give workers much more control over their spaces.Sound or noise in the workspace has also been evaluated. Surveys indicate women are more distracted by auditory disruption than men. Men would appear to be better able to block out auditory diversions. On the other hand, visual distractions affect men at a higher rate than women. Research shows that physical movement in the line of site distracts men from concentration more than women. There is also some evidence that women tend to work more horizontally. In general, women will use every square inch of work surface available and use additional paper management to organize their work. Men, on the other hand, will use more vertical surfaces. Men tend to request more markerboards, tackboards and other vertical display or working surfaces than women.Women report a preference for using group consensus rather than direct leading in achieving a goal. This may relate back to the hierarchy versus teaming issue. If women operate better in a more teaming environment, they may be more comfortable working where they can be in closer proximity to their teams. Survey information also indicates men tend to be more results-oriented when achieving a business objective. Women tend to focus more on the process of achievement. The joy, for women, tends to be in the journey.In general, men find their office furniture to be flexible enough to meet their needs. It is not completely clear if this indicates they are more capable of moving desks and files themselves in order to accommodate their work styles or if women have work styles that require more flexibility. Surveys also indicate women believe they are more effective working in open office areas as opposed to private offices. This may relate to the flatter social structure discussed earlier.Another interesting piece of information is the way men and women interact in open office areas. In workstation settings, men tend to speak to another person while standing next to or behind available counter-height barriers. Workstation panels or three high lateral files often attract groups of men in conversations. Women tend to walk into workstations in order to converse, or find an open area to sit and talk without barriers of any kind.A recent survey of a large national consulting firm resulted in some additional, not surprising, information. An employer offered midlevel managers a choice of two office layouts for their private offices: a more "traditional" arrangement in which there is a U-shaped desk, bridge and credenza where the manager sits on one side of the desk and the visitors sit opposite, or a more "non-traditional" arrangement in which users have a work area in the side and back areas of the office and a sizeable round table where they can work or meet with visitors. More men than women chose the traditional layout. More women chose the non-traditional layout. As time passes, more newly hired men are beginning to choose the round table desk option. The times are changing.ConclusionsWorkplace design over the last hundred years has, in many ways, stayed the same. Men and women still use work surfaces to support their work, although many of us are working more with technology and less with paper, pencil and file cabinets. We still sit in chairs in meetings with others, alone at our desks, and in open office areas. In some ways, however, workplace design has changed. The gender-specific picture of today's workplace has changed. Does workplace design affect men and women differently? It does. Do individual offices need to be designed differently for men versus women? The answer is a resounding maybe. Men and women need the opportunity to arrange seating in relationship to another person in order to suit their styles of interpersonal communication. Being in direct or indirect eye contact, close enough or far away enough to allow for physical contact or lack thereof, and the possible provision of a protective barrier are all aspects that may enhance or hinder our interactions. The best possible solution is to design offices so individuals may configure them themselves. Flexible storage areas on casters allowing positioning to suit the users' needs and adjustable chairs that can fit the size and shape of numerous body types are evident and important first steps. The key elements are the work surfaces themselves. Surfaces that are easily movable by the users allow for the range that gender differences can impose. Create a defensive barrier or break one down; the choice is up to you.Do "traditional" offices, standard layouts that have been used for a hundred years or more, support men more than they support women? The traditional layout may no longer support the way men and women physically work and relate to others, or the way companies are doing business. Does the "office of the future" need to be totally different from the office of the past? The answer is that it will most likely take care of itself if given the right, responsible and relevant tools. Many corporations are recognizing the needs of the changing work environment or culture. Automobile manufacturers and their dealerships have recognized that new cars, previously purchased predominantly by men, are being purchased today by more and more women. New-car showrooms were traditionally set up with salesmen behind desks and stiff guest chairs for customers. Now showrooms are filled with round tables and comfortable chairs much more conducive to the increasing number of female buyers and female salespeople. Companies like Owens Corning of Toledo, OH, are giving their workers totally movable and flexible furniture. In a recent public forum, the CEO indicated that giving the employees the ability to move their furniture around themselves reflected how they wor as a corporation and how they want their people to work.What may be suggested here is that, on a cellular level, we are all the total sum of our physical, emotional and spiritual parts. We may be men and women living in the 21st century, but we are still connected to the hunters and gatherers of our ancestry. We still hide behind barriers for protection. Trees and metal shields have been replaced by 36-by-72-inch mahogany desks. Campfires are the auditoriums and conference rooms we frequent to gather information. We still take our captured thoughts and ideas to our watering holes, break rooms and coffee bars to share, expand and embrace. We still need time in our caves, workstations and home offices to digest and inwardly reflect. We still need each other to make a difference. Sandy Crocker is a senior market manager with Haworth, Inc. in Cleveland, OH. In this position, Crocker works with architects and designers, dealers and end users. She has been in the office furniture industry for more than 22 years. Crocker holds a bachelor of science degree in education from Kent State University in Kent, OH, and a master of arts degree in psychology, diversity management specialization, from Cleveland State University in Cleveland.

Crocker has recently completed her master's thesis, titled, "The Impact of Workplace Design on Gender Specific Leadership Styles." After researching workplace design, gender differences and leadership style differences, she developed a survey for use with end users to determine the level of impact the workplace has on their ability to work within it. She interviewed architects, designers and facility managers, and completed case study work around traditional versus non-traditional office layouts. Her conclusions are presented here.

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