Architecture, feminine space

Perceiving the Workplace

Perceiving the Workplace Differently

On Tuesday, September 27, the Wall Street Journal ran an entire (R1) section on Women in the Workplace. The lead article, titled “How Men and Women See the Workplace Differently”, focused on the climb up the corporate ladder. How are women passed over for early promotions? How are they ignored during meetings? As an architect, my thoughts turned to differences in women’s’ and men’s perception of the physical workplace. Are the sexes perceiving the workplace’s physical attributes differently? Is there a “her space, his space” divide?

It’s all Open to Interpretation

Men and women interpret the meaning and effect of  vocal tone, attitude, or body language differently. But what about the meaning of actual physical objects? After all, a chair is a chair, a cubicle is a cubicle, a conference room is a conference room. And yet, don’t we all see spaces differently, depending on our point of view?

Imagine an office with no walls: a big warehouse space full of desks. There is no corner office. The CEO sits at a desk in the open office just like everyone else. What is it like for that CEO? What is it like for the junior employee at the adjacent desk?

Imagine an office with well-it general illumination. Everything can be seen by everyone. How does this differ from an office with low levels of general illumination and controllable desk lamps? Even the very adjectives used to describe space- “conference” room, “open” office, “shared” space- point to the way physical space is more than just Cartesian in attribute.

An Example

I was working with a couple on their new home design. The three of us were in front of my computer, and I had my design program open. I suggested some windows might be appropriate on an interior wall. Both husband and wife agreed, and they watched as I placed a few windows on the wall. As I started to move to the next design task, the wife announced the windows were not equally spaced. In fact, they were not. I had just casually placed them on the wall. The husband immediately caught on to the wife’s remark; it appears that type of comment was typical of comments he had heard from her before. I remarked that my wife would have said the same thing. We were quiet for a few seconds of individual reflection as we realized we had just shared a similar “men are from Mars” moment that applied to our own relationship.

The truth of the matter is, we all experience space differently, depending on our needs and wants, and our perceived place in a social order. We all walk into rooms and gauge the degree to which that environment is supportive or not. The question I ask myself is: how do we account for the different ways people perceive space? As a male architect, am I designing spaces that favor men at the expense of women? I am perceiving the workplace I design one way. My female client may well be perceiving the workplace she will inhabit differently.

This favoritism is very apparent today with restroom design. Ten years ago, who knew there was a substantial class of people who prefer gender-neutral restrooms? It would be insensitive for me to discount this class. I should not seek refuge by invoking current building codes that require separate rest facilities.

On the right, this trend toward accommodation is known as “identity politics”. Everyone has an identity, and that identity comes with an entitlement, no matter what the cost to the general public. On the left, this trend is simply a way to recognize diversity: the diversity of the general public.

I think we need to recognize that individuals are perceiving the workplace differently, but in ways that are understandable, legitimate, and human. For every desk space we design, we need to ask ourselves, are we slighting this person in order to make our job easier? Are we asking that person to buckle up and accept their fate because the effort to improve their lives through better design is just not built into our design fee? The intersection of the social world and the physical world is complicated. Architects cannot pretend our domain is the physical world, and how the social world fits in that physical space is someone else’s problem. We design spaces as a service to our clients. Understanding our clients as individual, actual human beings is par for the course.

Interested in discussing how we can help you realize an individualized design? Contact Mike Sealander, AIA at 207.266.5822 or email me.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.