The other day, I came across a study by two British sociologists, which found that open-plan offices are apparently “sexist”.
The study claimed that, in an open-plan office, women are watched by men and judged on their appearance. It also claimed that there is no privacy. That is, if women feel “emotional”, there is nowhere to hide but the ladies’ room.
The open-plan office is a dreadful creation. It’s an affront to the senses, and a killer of sustained thought. It turns us into pawns with short attention spans, churning out half-baked and forgettable products.
But sexist it is not.
First, it’s open-plan, so of course everyone is eyeing everyone: men are eyeing women, women are eyeing men, women are eyeing women, etc.
This isn’t because the object of observation is fascinating, but because the alternative – work – is even less interesting.
As for the privacy: it’s an office, and you cannot reasonably expect any. If you want privacy, build a sound-proof study in your garden.
And when it comes to emotions, if you cannot control them, you better leave the office, and quickly. The ladies’ room would do, but so would a walk in the park.
So how did the women in the study cope with the alleged sexism of the open-plan environment?
Apparently, they started putting an “unusual amount of care” into their appearance: out went jeans and cardigans, in came tailored suits and make-up.
Why is this a bad thing? An office full of well-dressed people lifts the mood. Jeans and cardigans, on the other hand, are scruffy and demoralising. They belong in a petrol station, not at work.
My first office, a political campaigning firm in Washington DC, was a glamorous place, and the woman who interviewed me looked like a mid-nineties version of The Good Fight’s Diane Lockhart.
“Does she see the hairdresser every morning?” I kept thinking, while she was telling me about her latest presidential campaign. And also: “I hope that I love this job one day as much as she does”.
When I worked for a Parisian firm, I rocked up one morning wearing an old winter jacket – while all the other women shimmered in subtle shades of pastel (it was late May).
“One doesn’t wear black in summer,” my secretary shouted out. Translation: please make an effort, because we have to look at you the whole day.
The “sexist office” study concludes that the open-plan office was designed by men – because if it were designed by women, there would be a restricted female-only enclosure, where sisters could work together in harmony and complicity, away from the predatory glances of men.
Instead of resorting to the pseudo-feminist cliche, what the authors of the study should do is examine the effects that the new grooming habits have had on the women in their sample. Because I bet they were positive.
A well turned-out woman (or man) makes a statement. You look at her and think: you dress impeccably just to come to the office – you must really like this job.
In fact, if you dress impeccably every single day, you must have discipline and time management skills, as well as energy and an obvious creative streak. Perhaps it could even push your manager to give in on those salary negotiations after all.
So yes, you are observed in the office; and no, it’s not sexist – it’s just how things are. And if an open-plan office motivates you to take better care of yourself, be glad for it.