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Can office layout produce gender bias?

December 19, 2016

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

According to the 2016 Women in the Workplace study, as women advance in their careers, they get less access to career-advancing opportunities, they are less likely to see fellow women in senior management, and they are less confident that they will reach the top ranks.  As organizations think about ways to address this issue and to develop and advance women, they should evaluate whether the office floor plan is creating gender bias.

Research by the University of Toronto published in Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice found that work teams made up of mostly women tend to share leadership roles, while work groups made up of mostly men favor hierarchal structures.

Jennifer Berdahl, a business professor at the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, and co-author Cameron Anderson, a professor at the University of California, Berkley, examined the leadership behavior of 169 students enrolled in an organizational behavior course.  The students were divided into three groups: 1) mostly men (2) an equal mix of men and women (3) mostly women.  

Each of the three work teams was responsible to choose an organization to study, present a proposal and write a paper.  The students were also asked to indicate their preferences for egalitarian or hierarchal work structures in the groups.  According to Berdahl, “women tended to prefer egalitarian norms in work groups whereas men favored more hierarchal structures in groups.”  

Of the two groups that were either mostly men or mostly women, both started off with leadership centered with one person.  Over time, the group of mostly women switched to a shared leadership work model while the men continued with one person in charge.  The study also revealed that the groups with centralized leadership received poorer evaluations.  “In a creative-project team, it’s really important to ensure there is equal opportunity for participation,” states Berdahl.

So how does this study translate to the typical organization and the layout of their floor plan?

Elizabeth Von Lehe, managing director of brand strategy and architecture at ICRAVE, indicates that conventional office layouts tend to favor the work style preferred by men.  “Traditional office models are very hierarchical and segmented, with private offices that keep management separated.  This design leads to a lack of mentorship and interactions, which can be a contributing factor to women not advancing – they simply don’t have as much visibility.”  

As office spaces are changing to a more open environment, it creates more visibility and equal opportunity for all employees to learn about upcoming projects and assignments.  While the current trend is for open floor plans, don’t overlook though the need for some private spaces.  Private spaces are important for coaching and mentorship.  According to Von LeHe, “what leads to greater success for all workers, but especially women, is flexibility and customization.” 

Office spaces that do not have permanent walls, but instead have movable walls or modular components that can be easily rearranged for multiple configurations will create a more dynamic and collaborative workspace.

As companies evaluate their office layouts to help workers be happier and more productive attention should be paid to the work preferences and needs of both men and women.  According to Von Lehe, “to get ahead, businesses can no longer lean on old models.  We have to design for future flexible workspace that is supportive of all workers.”  The key is flexibility – offering both open and private workspaces.  To properly support collaboration and mentorship, leadership should not be completely closed off from their staff.  

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