Open offices bad for women?

A Facebook friend posted “Why open plan offices are like a nudist beach” (Washington Post):

In the #MeToo era, an open-office environment might seem like the perfect solution for fixing the sexual harassment that can take place behind closed office doors. If there are glass walls everywhere, and no one has doors or even plastic partitions to reserve any sense of privacy, groping and sexual advances might be harder to get away with.

But that hardly means it’s an office arrangement women love. Research has already shown that women tend to be more sensitive than men to the noise generated in open-plan offices, and take more long sick leaves when they work in them. Now a recently published study of a British government office showed that open-plan offices may be tougher for women in different ways — leaving them feeling more scrutinized for their appearance, subject to staring by male peers and more self-conscious about their status in the organization.

Silicon Valley women express their unhappiness:

“A couple jobs ago, I was basically a zoo animal. Incessant staring and comments on my clothes, makeup, jewelry, conversations, personal habits, food, facial expressions, everything. One guy would even stare between the monitors all day and comment while I worked.”

(Why was she wearing makeup and jewelry if she wanted to keep the lowest possible profile?)

Another reader, named only Veronica G., wrote Fast Company to say “my own office was a glass box and my desk did not have a facade – which meant, because I always wear skirts or dresses instead of pants, I had to sit with my knees together all the time to look ‘proper’ because I was visible from all angles.”

(Why not get some pants at Costco for $20? Or shop for rompers? (I learned recently from a 3rd grader that “rompers” look like a dress on top, but are divided into pants on the bottom))

What was interesting about this was the ensuing discussion:

Married-with-kids male engineer (“mengineer”?): Journalism in 2018: Pick a situation or practice. Say that women (or minorities) are disproportionately affected. Collect thunderous applause.

Male-named college undergraduate: Man, isn’t exposing the rampant sexism/racism in America just the worst? what a drag.

Engineer:  In America, in the midst of rampant sexism and racism. I just spent two days in an open office environment. These women stared at me constantly and just JUDGED. I could feel it.

Undergrad: I’m confused, are you claiming to be a victim of sexism?

Engineer: I certainly am. Why not? Are you questioning a victim’s testimony?

Wag: You are not a “victim”; You are a “survivor”

Undergrad (to Wag): way to trivialize the various traumas that sexual assault survivors endure on a regular basis. It’s like you playing a game of paintball and calling yourself a war veteran afterwards.

Undergrad: Not at all, I’m sure you felt judged. But let’s take a survey. Who are your coworkers? are you in a male dominated field? you certainly were at MIT. Is your boss male? what about their boss? and, Since we know you live in the US, where the power structure (both in government and on local social levels) is incredibly male dominated, you did not experience sexism. This isn’t to say that the women in your work place made you feel uncomfortable, but while you still exist in a society that favors men over women (which is, again, certainly the case in STEM careers), sexism really ain’t your problem

Engineer: I won’t allow myself to be reduced to a data point to be compared to other data points in a heartless statistical argument. My experience and feelings are valid and incredibly important in and of themselves and it is the society’s full responsibility to ensure that I and men like me don’t ever feel judged again.

Undergrad: Yes, agreed, we should do all we can do ensure we have a safe and comfortable for all. But while you’re getting “judged” which, again, must be rough, Women are being paid less, harassed, and assaulted, all on top of being judged. But until some of these numbers are evened out, I’d say its appropriate to focus on women. NPR article with harassment data: “A New Survey Finds 81 Percent Of Women Have Experienced Sexual Harassment”

I pointed out that the article betrayed cisgender-normative prejudice by the journalists at the Post. The article was published on May 16 and a May 7 Twitter entry from Tracy Chou was cited along with a comment from “Hayley Anderson” about makeup and jewelry. Although Hayley never says “I identify as a woman,” or refers to him/herself with a female pronoun, Hayley is described as “a woman”. Why assume that someone who wears makeup and jewelry identifies as a “woman”? And even if Hayley identified as a woman on May 7, how do the folks at the Post know that she continued to identify as a woman through May 16?

I also pointed out that the “nudist beach” analogy in the headline was questionable given that a typical nude beach in the U.S., at least, is all-male. I asked “wouldn’t it be a better analogy to compare the open office to South Beach in Miami, for example, where fashionable swimwear is often displayed?”

Here are some ideas for correcting the injustice:

Should women in tech companies all be given private offices while the herd of male nerds is left to toil in an open pit? If it is tough to pay women more, for whatever reason, companies could get them closer to their fair market compensation (higher than a similarly skilled and productive man) by giving them a more comfortable working environment.

Or maybe there could be a separate parking lot, entrance, and floor for employees identifying as female?

(my favorite, due to requirement for advanced tech!) Or workers identifying as female could work in the open office, but workers identifying as male would wear special electronic glasses that turned opaque as soon as a female-identifying employee was in the field of view? If a woman spoke to a man, however, the glasses could (at her option) temporarily go transparent or translucent.

Readers: What do you think?

20 thoughts on “Open offices bad for women?

  1. I know that Dead White Guys(DWGs) are out of fashion, but they happen to have an answer to this issue if you read Plato’s Republic and Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Perhaps we should read them while we search for non-existent replacements in the fairer sex, Africa, Asia and the Americas?

  2. Well, perhaps it’s time to give every programmer a private office again? It’s not like anyone really enjoys the open plan office.

  3. Since we know you live in the US, where the power structure (both in government and on local social levels) is incredibly male dominated, you did not experience sexism.

    Undergrad does not prove that the power structure is incredibly male dominated, however.

    This is furthermore more properly called ‘academic sexism’, since it redefines an existing term, just as ‘academic racism’ is the corresponding redefinition of ‘racism’.

  4. And finally, a simple solution to academic sexism in the office environment would be to put female contributors in a separate office, on a separate floor, or even in a separate building (distant enough to negate the academic sexism).

  5. My guess is that the women complaining about men starring at them are women who are never starred at since I think women like to be noticed for their appearance, clothing, etc.

  6. It’s just like the early news about women on aircraft carriers. They were given private staterooms while all the men still stayed in large shared areas. It wouldn’t be unheard of for women in a large software team to have the same treatment, but the ones worth staring at don’t write software as much as do PR. The PR groups already tend to be separate from the male farm.

  7. I too am a mangineer survivor of sexual harassment in an uncomfortable work place. What’s more uncomfortable than open floor plans? Pair-programming! Pro-tip: mixed-sex pairs sharing a single keyboard and sitting inches apart 8 hours a day is a harassment complaint waiting to happen, from either sex.

    (Also, hasn’t everybody figured out that code reviews give all the benefits pair programming at only a small fraction of the extra cost?)

  8. My personal solution is to treat women in the workplace the way I’d treat a deranged homeless person who accosted me on the street: minimize conversation and eye contact, avoid close physical proximity and generally try to terminate the encounter as quickly as possible. And certainly avoid being alone with them under any circumstances.

    Of course most women aren’t going to complain or sue just like most homeless aren’t going to stab, but why take a chance?

  9. In my wildest dreams I could not have explained my approach any better than Bill’s. Why take the chance? No benefit whatsoever, huge pain in the assery if it goes wrong.

    I may be libertarian, but pair programming advocates deserve to be in Gulags.

  10. Tony Doe:

    If I remember, Hobbes’s Leviathan was a sexless being. Society was a body made of its citizenry, with various castes constituting various body parts, the King being the head. Perhaps we must update his work for modern times. What part of our society shall be the loins? Shall the Leviathan be male, female, or an hermaphrodite?


    Getting back to the subject at hand, the Tom Wolfe novel Hooking Up addresses the subject of the development of the open office. It was a reflection of the practical, meritocratic culture of the first Silicon Valley entrepreneurs:

    And there would be no baronial office suites. The glorified warehouse on Charleston Road was divided into work bays and a couple of rows of cramped office cubicles. The cubicles were never improved. The decor remained Glorified Warehouse, and the doors were always open. Half the time Noyce, the chief administrator, was out in the laboratory anyway, wearing his white lab coat. Noyce came to work in a coat and tie, but soon the jacket and the tie were off, and that was fine for any other man in the place, too. There were no rules of dress at all, except for some unwritten ones. Dress should be modest, modest in the social as well as the moral sense. At Fairchild there were no hard-worsted double-breasted pinstripe suits and shepherd’s-check neckties. Sharp, elegant, fashionable, or alluring dress was a social blunder. Shabbiness was not a sin. Ostentation was.


    I must confess to not getting far enough in the book to get to the “hooking up” part, which addressed the new sexual morality of the early twenty-first century college campus.

  11. Most office furniture these days is heavily modular, with all kinds of attachments. That these women didn’t feel um, “empowered” enough to ask HR to install readily available privacy panels to hide their knees is sad.

  12. Open office plans are the absolute worst. Very noisy. Whomever thought this up should be drawn and quartered. Terrible for productivity, when concentration is required. Let the salespeople have ’em, I say.

  13. G C & Tom are right. Open plan is horrible for men, too, although for different reasons.

  14. 80-year-old Morgan Freeman is in trouble because he stands accused of leering at women on a movie set! Also for some attempted groping that did not succeed. It is not too hard for a 20-year-old woman to fight off an 80-year-old man.

    “a number saying they had to change how they dressed so as not to be harassed.”

    There is a novel idea. A woman can wear less provocative clothes, and get less attention! Who would have thought?

  15. Mememe: I recommended Levithian and Republic not because we should copy them literally, but because of their general affect on our thinking.

  16. Open office plans are the worst. Just recently my company finished a new building, all open office on every floor (except for the head department and head of divisions of course!). So far I’ve been lucky to stay in my office. If the situation changes, I have been contemplating looking to work ‘remotely’ – not meaning home-office (I don’t have enough space in my home, no quiet place to work) but just looking to rent a room/office a few streets away and ride a bike in for meetings.

  17. Tony,

    to have that general effect be more effective, it is best not just to mention them, but to discuss them properly.

    FWIW, I misrepresented Wolfe’s book Hooking Up. It is a collection of non-fiction essays, the eponymous one being a succinct description of the sexual state of America in 2000. The essay I quoted from is the second in the collection, Two Young Men Who Went West, and it gives a factual accounting of the beginnings of Silicon Valley. Both essays are well worth the read.

  18. How far does this go?

    Every business should by law, offer all women, a ‘historical handicap’ that gives them automatic privileges, such as automatic promotion upon being hired, and get on the short list for the single office spaces. Free daycare, free babysitting, etc. The only requirement for them is that they must all dress in Maoist era communist attire.

  19. GermanL: notes that unmarried women of child-bearing age are more likely to be able to qualify for welfare than other Americans and therefore they have a lower labor force participation rate (that fell steeply starting with the welfare expansions of 2009). Thus you would expect that an employer that wants to hire such workers would have to pay a premium either in terms of higher wages or better conditions (nicer offices, shorter hours, more vacation and sick time, etc.).

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