Head over heels

This post is a contribution to the Blog Carnival hosted by Doug Shaw (@DougShaw1) on the theme of new beginnings.

If you slid down the last post, a ridicule of the alarming trend towards the provision of adolescent boys’ toys as fundamental features of the modern workplace, you would arrive at this. I guess I haven’t quite finished lambasting the drift, and need to leave the subject with a more positive message.

Almost half the workforce of the UK are female: 47% for those who love a credible statistic. That’s 13,819,000 women, the overwhelming majority of whom are not fussed about fussball. Consider also that since the GFC eight out of every ten job losses in the UK have been male. Despite the on-going struggle of women to force their way into the chauffeur-driven classes, the trend is moving one way only.

The “feminisation of the workplace” term has been applied to the trend towards the greater employment of women, and of men willing and able to operate with more ‘feminine’ modes of interaction. The “female” way of working is deemed to focus on activities associated with the creative and intuitive right side of the brain, rather than the analytical, logical left (if such a division is not just a myth in itself): risk-awareness rather than risk-taking, teamwork rather than the will to power, principles rather than greed – the real Generation Y, as in the chromosome, not the ever-shifting age band of #generationblah.

Yet the physical workplace is invariably designed to service the working, standing, seating, interacting, eating, drinking, ablution, social and amusement needs of the male. Worse, many of the black leather, steel, chrome, gadget-riddled bachelor pads – latterly morphed into poodleplexes or wacky warehouse wonderparks – have been designed by women. That is potentially underpinned by a problem within the surveying profession, which until only recently started to climb out of a gluepot where less than 10% of qualified professionals were female.

Stereotypes appear to be reinforced even when the overt intent is to address them. At a workplace conference event two years ago a large bank that should know better showed an atrocious video of their brave new workplace, complete with ubiquitous (that word gets everywhere) airbrushed stock photography and shrink-wrapped pap rock. Promoting “work life balance” who did it show picking up the children from school, spangled, steam-pressed, pristine and free of the crumples an concerns of a taxing day? The wife, of course. A major opportunity to break with the stereotype, fluffed.

The best we hear of, or appear to be able to hope for, in regard to workplace design that addresses the needs of women is a benign parity – “collaboration” spaces that all can use. Apparenty that constitutes a gesture. The dim reality is that it is either (at worst) a male need that is being serviced, or (at best) a neutral, androgynous requirement. We are all perpetually stuck at first base.

A new beginning is required. The workplace of the present is male – the workplaces we are entrusted with creating today (because the future is too late) need to not only redress the balance, but swing the pendulum further towards the needs of women. They are the emergent force, in embodiment, spirit and approach. The entire aesthetic through to the detail of its functionality, needs reconsidering, a frame of reference that respects women and their needs as distinct from the predictable and shallow male response. For women to feel welcomed by, and part of, the organisation – wanted, valued and respected – rather than merely passing through, the physical workplace has a fundamental role to play.

The feminisation of workplace design is by no means just a designer issue. Clients need to be specific and explicit about the needs of female employees and visitors in the development of the brief, and stand their ground when they are not met. Furniture and equipment manufacturers must play their part too, from concept to delivery. For everyone concerned, the positive news is that it is not difficult, it just takes application and co-operation. The entire discipline must work together – itself perhaps a new beginning? – to realise, understand and respond.

The new beginning here, is considered thought. Time to pack the fussball away, boys.

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