Empowering A New Workforce
Gender Neutral Workspaces
Call it gender equality, gender parity or gender neutrality. As more and more women ascend to professional and leadership positions, businesses and organisations have striven to create cultures and provide environments that accommodate both sexes without favouritism.
What often is lacking in these efforts is a clear vision of what constitutes gender equality or neutrality, especially in the design of the physical environment.
As workers gravitate toward social settings, apart from home and work, new and re-positioned “office buildings” will make room for them. Gender Neutrality, openness and connection to adjoining buildings and districts will gain importance.
As mobile workers switch between office space and “third place” alternatives, owners and developers that focus on transit-served, mixed-use districts may have an edge in attracting them particularly as we face the blended workplace practices that need to engage all levels.
The demand for gender neutral zones and workplace flexibility will be reinforced by buildings that let organisations, teams, and individuals shape space on the move using space as an augmented reality. Faster space adaptability and unification will be the norm, and buildings will reflect this in form, structure, interior volume, façades, and services.
As space will become more democratic as flatter, innovation-hungry organisations embrace agile, autonomous teams that are directly accountable for their results and in harmony with their surroundings.
Design & Future Proofing
For workplaces within buildings, the National Construction Code of Australia sets out the ratio of toilets to the number of workers, and the specifications for toilets. Generally, separate toilets should be provided in workplaces where there are both male and female workers. However, one unisex toilet may be provided in workplaces with both male and female workers where:
- the total number of people who normally work at the workplace is 10 or less
- there are two or less workers of one gender. For example, a workplace with two male and eight female workers or with one female and three male workers could have a unisex toilet because there are 10 or fewer workers in total and two or fewer workers of one gender.
A unisex toilet should include one closet pan, one washbasin and means for disposing of sanitary items.
For all other workplaces, separate toilets should be provided in the following ratios:
These ratios are the minimum standard that should be provided. However, in some workplaces, the scheduling of workers’ breaks will affect the number of toilets required. There should be enough toilets available for the number of workers who may need to use them at the same time.
The rising numbers of LGBTQI, freelance and contract workers will have a design and operational impact as organisations seek to integrate them. Likewise, given the ubiquity of the mobile workplace, people will expect to maintain such primary workplace values as health, engagement, brand, and work mode support – wherever they choose to work.
The need for geographically distributed teams within global organisations to work together effectively is complicated by language and cultural differences. Giving collaboration tools real-time translation capability could help. Automation, which may prove to be both a boon and a threat to workers, is an emerging issue that will grow in importance in the next decade.
Design and future proofing the future’s workforce needs has become more important that ever as the rapidly changing workplace settings cater to all Diverse Employees.
From colours to spatial relationships, thermal comfort to navigation and way finding, much research has been conducted on how men and women perceive and react to the physical environment differently. These studies point out ways that designers can try to accommodate the needs or preferences of each sex, such as using more “neutral” colours, providing personal comfort controls, integrating multiple visual systems for navigating and way finding, and allowing individuals to personalise their space.
Because it is not always feasible or possible to achieve complete parity, in practice the determining factor usually turns out to be whether more men or women will use the space or — in the case of retail, bars and clubs — whether a business seeks to appeal more to one sex than the other.
Other times, the solution may be to provide gender-specific “separate but equal” facilities, as in spas and sports clubs. Some hotels now offer “female-friendly” areas (such as an entire floor) to appeal to women traveling alone. They offer 24-hour manned service desks, well-lit entrances, secure floors and extra-secure room doors and windows, as well as amenities such as quality hair dryers, slippers, women’s and lifestyle magazines, and a selection of herbal teas.
In order to counteract what have been predominantly male-oriented cultures, some businesses and organisations have made a conscious effort to create more female-friendly environments, including the use of more “feminine” colours, furnishings and accessories for women’s offices and public areas.
A recent study of gender and equality in the workplace by the Centre for Workplace Leadership in Australia found that while that approach works well in some organisations, it may cause problems in others — particularly in in male-dominated industries such as science, mining and engineering.
The report states:
“This focus on creating a positive environment for women may result in a failure to attract and retain high-quality male employees. Equality, (it concludes), needs to be viewed more broadly as creating a work environment for both men and women.”
Research conducted at Universities showed gender stereotypes embodied in the physical environment can affect an individual’s sense of belonging and his/her ability to function well in that environment. They discovered female high school students were significantly more likely to show an interest in signing up for a class in computer science when shown a photograph of a gender-neutral classroom than when shown a photograph of a stereotypical, male-oriented classroom.
Similarly, an investigation of workplace inclusiveness in architecture firms conducted identified changes in an office’s physical environs that can substantially improve the comfort level of all employees, but especially female employees, by being gender-conscious rather than gender-friendly.
These include safe and accessible sitting (safety is a key concern for women in any environment), open space design (to encourage collaboration and eliminate hierarchical disputes over office space), designated nursing areas, and remote access (to work offsite and flexible hours).
The recommendations are clear about:
“being careful about the types of chair designs chosen, so as not to make any individual uncomfortable, (for instance, a woman in a skirt may feel awkward when seated at certain levels).”
They also advise movable and adaptable office furniture, and accessible but private unisex bathroom facilities with amenities for both men and women.