Designing an office for women

27 August 2019 | Business Thoughts

When you leave the Netherlands you realize one thing very quickly; kitchen benchtops tend to be made quite a bit lower in other countries. Being the tallest nation of the world, they’re created to suit us. Continued use in other countries creates plenty of sore backs, necks, and shoulders bending over more to adapt to the lower benchtop. It reminds me a lot of being a woman in an office. It is obviously not impossible. It is not difficult to adapt to. But it grinds over time, causes you a few issues, and you wish you had a better option. It becomes glaringly obvious the office hasn’t been designed for women.

Here’s some unpleasant stats:

  1. Women in offices make up nearly half of the occupants in most industrialized nations but only a quarter of architects are female. Worse still, there’s barely an architect design firm in the world run only by a woman.
  2. 70% of design students are women, but only 5-11% of creative director positions are held by women. Only 0.1% of creative agencies are women-owned.
  3. Research shows a woman’s appearance can figure prominently into her overall success at work.
  4. Only 5% of all Fortune 500 CEOs are women. You’re more likely to become a Fortune 500 CEO named James or John. 
  5. Women earn more degrees than men and increasingly work in occupations that used to be male-dominated, and yet their progress to positions of power has been slowed or stalled.

Offices are built by men, for men. Just like the cities those offices are located in. And though women make up half the workforce, we’re largely not involved in executive decisions or feedback in design processes. Little tweaks can change this and have a big impact. New offices can be managed differently. Here’s a comprehensive list I’ve come up with to build and reconfigure offices to work better for women. By women I mean all women (trans, intersex and cis), all those who experience oppression as womxn (including non-binary and gender non-conforming) and anyone who identifies as a woman. Simultaneously nearly everything here also benefits men so it’s a classic win-win (something corporates and capitalism loves).

Building Design

Get rid of so much glass everywhere
Women are already always looking for who they need to be wary of – whether it’s conscious or not. Like it or not there are plenty of men who pay more attention to women in offices and it can be pretty uncomfortable. A woman is likely going to need to raise this with a male boss and can often be perceived as complaining or being too sensitive. It is far fairer and more comfortable to just avoid this where possible. I’ve actually worked in a huge office that had small privacy rooms…made completely from clear glass. I’d rather not be stressing on my exact body position, any accidental clothing mishaps or being very aware of anybody walking past or facing me.

Open plan offices can be sexist – or not
This is a tricky one as it can swing both ways. Studies show open plan spaces can make sexual harassment worse, they can make women feel like they have to dress up much more than they would otherwise and they can make it difficult to deal with any emotions (something all sexes deal with) whether work or entirely not work related that interrupts the day. Women tend to find ‘hiding spots’ where they can get away for a minute; to debrief with a colleague, to make a private call, to vent about that sexist comment or deal with anxiety. Build in spaces for this instead. Women also tend to be feel more exposed in open offices, selecting desks that are closer to corners and walls to protect ourselves.

Women report constantly feeling watched and monitored in open office spaces. We’re trained for this to minimize any effects in society. Women with children (whether biological, step, adopted, fostered or helping friends) tend to need more flexible starting and leaving times. In open offices this is noted much more easily and silent judgement – if not explicit – occurs.

That doesn’t mean closed-in, cubicle spaces are the answer. Open-plan has plenty of benefits to all genders too. Research shows closed-in tends to be bad for women as they aren’t as visible and become less likely to move into leadership positions. None of this can be addressed without resolving the underlying reasons that create the foundation for these problems but in the meantime, having an office that has different workspaces, with the ease & freedom to move between them however desired, is best.


Have childcare facilities in the building
Whether your company decides to start & staff this, whether you organize this with all the businesses in your building or whether you outsource this to an expert third party to set up, get this into – or very near – your building stat. Without significant cost to your employees. It makes the lives of working mums and dads (and all caregivers) so much easier. It means all care providers can go to work full-time. It means either parent can take the kids in the morning. It means the kids can be visited during the day for a lunch date, feed time and/or a little extra connection. It’s important for everyone involved and brings us a huge step closer to equality (and less stressed out parents).

Desks with backing boards, and flexible workspace areas
Anyone should be able to wear a skirt no matter your assigned sex. When desks are created in open plan areas they can often be found without backing boards. That means women in particular are nearly always crossing their legs, holding their legs together or can feel caught out in a moment if they prefer to sit a different way. If you have a backing board at the desk, women can sit comfortably however they’d like without any worries that any colleague, person opposite or camera is spotting anything else. If you do have all open tables, make sure you have plenty of other workspaces where women can sit comfortably and that you’ve created a culture where somebody can pick up their laptop and work from that area whenever they’d like.

Tampons & pads
Supply them! Running my own business I have always ensured these are around for others. People who have a uterus tend to get periods. It’s normal. Sometimes they come as a surprise. Sometimes they’re early. Sometimes you’ve forgotten your items. Sometimes you can’t afford to buy these (period poverty is very real). Make sure they’re available somewhere easy to access and discreet (there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed about but some of us would like more privacy for varying reasons). And have bins for them – countless times I’ve been in bathrooms where women have had to carefully wrap them up and store them in our handbags instead.

Breastfeeding space
Please, please have this. We’re still experiencing what they call ‘nappy valley’ in the data in full-time working women who are having or caring for children; there’s a significant drop in participation rates. One of the reasons for this is breastfeeding. Create space in your office for it, allow for flexible working conditions, make it comfortable, safe and easy. And if you work in tech, encourage women into the field and get some excellent pumps happening that do a much better job than what’s on the market a lot of the time!

Ensure you’re serviced by public transport
Women rely on public transport networks more than men. They’re also 17% more likely to die in a car crash (hint: car crash dummies never included women’s body shapes and only recently did one start being implemented used in only one of every five tests, only ever in the passenger seat – also it’s a scaled down male dummy, not one that is anthropomorphically female, let alone useful for pregnant women). Make sure your office is easily accessible by public transport wherever possible. If you’re in a city that hasn’t placed importance on this, wield your influence as an enterprise, or band together with other businesses, to create this infrastructure.

Have fruit, snacks & tea available
Due to the social system we all grew up and were conditioned in, it’s more likely that women are running around more in the mornings getting lunches organized or doing last minute meeting prep. Having snacks available means that on all those rushed or forgotten mornings, there’s something healthy and quick to grab. To that end, make sure there is tea too. Not the cheap plastic bagged tea, but actually decent tea with a range of milk options. No point lifting up women if we’re sidelining others to lives of unethical labor (which tea can be infamous for). Snacks are also great for other care providers too who can play an equal role at home, and for anyone who is going through a difficult financial period.

A few years ago a study was released in the Nature Climate Change journal that eported the ideal workplace temperatures — which hover between 20- 34 degress Celsius (68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit) — was calculated in the 1960s based on the model of a 40-year-old, 154-pound man. Women’s bodies are of course different. We feel cold differently. And an uncomfortable workforce is unproductive and thereby less profitable.

More bathrooms
When I visited MIT university nearly a decade ago, there were a huge number of male toilets – and in this particularly area only two female toilets. It highlighted the clear historical issues we’ve had with women’s rights and engineering jobs. In many places now building codes provide equal flooring space to male and female bathrooms and yet there never seems to be enough toilets for women. In male bathrooms there is often both cubicles & a trough thereby increasing the number of men who can go the toilet at once. Men without uteruses also don’t have periods or babies or urinary tract infections anywhere near as much (women are eight times more likely to get these). Make sure you have at least equal the amount of female toilets in your office and a unisex / gender neutral space.

Relax your dress policy
It will help everyone. Let people wear appropriate shorts in summer; it’s only getting hotter out there and we should try to reduce our airconditioning cooling extremes (as they too also contribute significantly to climate change). Don’t have any explicit or implicit expectations of women wearing high heels, dresses & skirts and perfectly ironed blouses with their hair blow dried each morning. Women already pay extra – the classic pink tax – for these items and social expectations and spend more time on this each week. You can still be professional and dress in a relaxed manner.

Reimagine your ‘bro space’
As offices become more modern and seek to provide better benefits, I have stepped into countless spaces where there is a gaming area, ping-pong table and pool table. There’s nothing wrong with this in the right space, and plenty of non-male humans enjoy this too but it is focussed on ‘bros’ and it’s pretty obvious. I know exactly when I’ve stepped into an office of a male owned start-up. Keep your ping-pong table but also have quiet reading areas. Have a study space. Have a plant-filled area to have a comfortable cup of tea in. Include a free gym or yoga membership to a diverse and inclusive gym space or build that in.


Stop before your drop
Before you head down onto the floor underneath a desk ask the person, and people around you, first. IT people might need to go and check cords and the likes and though the person at the desk may be gone, the women around wearing skirts might very well be at surrounding desks. Be aware and just make sure everybody knows what you’re doing.

Job descriptions need rewording
Gender coded language is all over job descriptions. Whenever I see one promoting fuse-ball tables, free beer and playstation competitions I know what kind of atmosphere it is and that the job was not designed, nor had an expectation of, a womxn applying. It’s a lot more subtle language too. Dominant, boasts, superior, killer instinct are all coded more masculine as opposed to community, supportive, committed, understanding.

Keep in mind that research generally shows, men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the criteria, while women wait until they feel they meet 100% of the criteria. A long list of desired criteria will turn women away.

Shift away from using guys to address groups of people
Hey, guys! Instead try Hey, team or Hey, superstars if you can pull that off in a way that no-one cringes. Find your degendered opener and run with that.

Please don’t ask the woman on the team to organize the event, the outing, write the minutes, take meeting notes, or bring in the morning tea
Even if you didn’t mean it this way, it reinforces stereotypes. Maybe the reason for your asking is coming from an unconscious bias. Instead, create a roster of people where everybody knows these jobs are being fairly distributed – and include yourself.

Watch your thoughts and language
Dads who leave the office a little early or on time tend to get praised for being a “family man”. Women who do the same are hurting their promotion prospects. In many minds women seem tense where men appear concentrated. Men are passionate, women are angry. Men who insistent on something get it actioned, women who did are called dominating or conversely, endearingly cute. Watch the assumptions you’re having and making around you, even when they feel natural. They’re often conditioned and taught responses.

Making maternity assumptions
Some women aren’t going to come back after having a baby. Some will want to come back part-time. Some will want to be back full-time within two weeks. Some will have stay-at-home partners. Some will have nannies or babysitting. Some will want three months off and then want to return full-time. Don’t make any assumptions. Discuss first. Don’t assume women can’t take on more responsibilities when having, or have had, a child. There are plenty who love and adore their work and will want to continue pursuing opportunities. There are others who want to balance out their time. Talk first, talk again and make a plan from there.


This isn’t the post for this but please stop moaning about quotas. Many countries are not even hitting quotas where they’re implemented. Due to the history of our world, jobs have been created and intended for men so it’s high time to even that out. Take a leaf from this example by Eindhoven University in the Netherlands. Despite all good intentions and policies the University wasn’t hitting targets for varying & sometimes societal complex reasons so they instituted an 18 month phase to hire women only. It’s not a big deal; essentially men have had this practice for over a century and it just leads to a fair balance.

Allow for work away from the office
Whether that’s at home, at a cafe (for some like me this really helps with productivity during certain tasks) or at a hospital when waiting endless hours for results. Due to the way we setup society, women simply need more flexibility than men. We still take on far more household chores, we have a lot more to do with the kids an many of us want to work full-time and advance in our careers. Give a bit of flexibility and you’ll get a lot. Make this the same for every human at your office – we’ll end up with far more equal partnerships and distributions of activities.

Working hours
In a corporate job I was once in the bathroom at 7.30am when a woman came running through the door only to immediately burst into tears. After comforting her I learned she had just been berated by her boss for needing to leave an hour early (4pm) to pick up her child. Her husband wasn’t able to today. She was at work early to make up for it.

I used to turn up at work early, before anyone else and achieve more in that time than you could with anyone around, and leave a little earlier. People used to call out part-timer whilst I was on the way out the door even though I was working on average 45 hours per week. I recently met an executive coach who told me a story of a manager he was working with that was on a part-time schedule with a new child. Except, her part-time was 40 hours a week, only a few less than others on her level. She was doing a full time role, being paid half the amount. We need realistic, flexible work hours for everyone (wherever possible) and far less judgement.

HR need to do their jobs
Many don’t seem to be empowered to do them. Have very clear & effective policies regarding gender discrimination, sexual harassment, assault and bias. Not your average jargon but actual policies that work in real life, will be read, and will be adhered to. HR also needs to provide significantly more real-world training not another tick in the box (and likely need much more training themselves). Talk about sexism, about systems that pull us all down because of sexism, about gendered insult language and ways to substitute this.

No meetings at bars, no functions at strip clubs or similar
In one job I was one of two women. The men went out to strip clubs. I’d only figure this out from tiny clips in conversations. They didn’t ask me to attend. It’s not my scene and unless it’s done ethically and only women profit and want to be there, I’m not comfortable with it. Guess who received regular promotions though? The group that goes along. Please don’t allow this, explicitly in policy.

Please don’t allow business meetings to be arranged in bars (same goes with vendors). Women are constantly having to look out for subtle signals, to fend off advances etc. We can be amazing friends, be professional about work, and stay out of uncomfortable situations where we’re constantly second guessing ourselves.

A safe get-home policy
Women can decide for themselves how to get home safely, but given that women are far more likely to be harassed and attacked on their way home, particularly in the evening, your company should always have a safe option in place including a paid Uber / taxi to take home.

Data Gaps
Women face one very, very big problem when it comes to data; we’re simply missing from it. Nearly all historical – and even most current – data configures itself around a standard male (known as Reference Man) and then applies that knowledge to women as if it were simply transferable. Studies even explicitly left out women because our hormones are different as it would cause issues in the data provided; rather than considering that is precisely why we should be factored in. This has big impacts and includes our office spaces. For example, women’s bodies react differently to certain chemicals, pollution and safety techniques. When exposed to radiation for example, women are more likely to suffer much more than men do (in fact, after exposure the cancer rate increases by 50% for women). Breast cancer has been steadily increasing since industrialization and we’re not really sure why. Equipment is often also designed for men – whether on a construction site, safety gear or an office chair – resulting in women have more injuries even whilst safety increases across the world. Make sure the data you use, and the studies & surveys you create, explicitly include and are designed for, all humans evenly.



That’s the list! There’s probably a few more pieces to add to here (would love to hear what you would add). This is going to take time but we can absolutely do this. Talk to all womxn and non-binary folks in your office. Create supportive environments. Watch out for the little things and implement changes. If you’re a male, don’t be afraid to get a little uncomfortable. Sometimes you might get some pushback from women too; that’s ok. We all were brought up in this society, we can all be sexist. It doesn’t mean it’s not happening or doesn’t need changing though. Education is key and it’s going to take all of us.

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