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Women In The Workplace - Is It Time For A More Female Friendly Office?

While women have made major advances over the years by entering into leadership roles and achieving (slowly) pay equity, one area that does not seem to be changing oddly enough is the actual office itself.

Consider this:

  • There was a recent study that showed that office temperatures are at a level where women are freezing.
  • Women say they feel like they are always on display when working in an open office environment.
  • Many startups have no accommodations for new mothers.
  • The typical start-up office is set up to be bro-friendly.

As women move more and more into leadership roles, we can expect changes to take place. Let’s look at some of these less than female-friendly office space trends and discuss what changes we can expect.

Office Temperature

I read a really interesting article in the online newsfeed The Skimm that summed up the current challenges women have with how cold the office is.

77°F - New boy band? Not quite. Perfect temperature for productivity?

A Cornell study says 'that's right.' Researchers found that when office temperatures were raised from 68°F to 77°F, typing errors fell by 44% and typing output increased by 150%. This doesn't explain why we're still working in freezers, but it can help you keep your cool as you shake off the summer slump.

Think about why office temperatures are set at 68°F. It is a throwback to the days of a male-dominated, suit and ties workplace where the thermostat would be kept low because of the men needed to find a level of comfort that allows them to wear suit jackets.

Women, unfortunately, were not taken into consideration. Here is a summary from an article in the Washington Post;

The problem, according to a study in Nature Climate Change on Monday, is that metabolic rates can vary widely across humans based on a number of factors -- size, weight, age, fitness level and the type of work being done -- and today's standards are based on the assumption that every worker is, you guessed it, a man.

The current standards for office settings assume a metabolic rate that produces a resting heat of 60 to 70 watts per square meter. The researchers estimated that this model overestimated the heat production of women by up to 35 percent.

Translation: The women were freezing their collective behinds off.

Does An Open Office Make Women Uncomfortable?

Here is an excerpt from a recent SHRM article Subtle Sexism and the Open Office Floor Plan that discussed how the open office could unintentionally be sexist and detrimental to female productivity:

Some women consider open offices to be slightly sexist and detrimental to collaboration and productivity, saying they were very aware of being constantly watched and having their appearance endlessly scrutinized, British researchers found. Men, the researchers said, did not complain as much about the lack of privacy.

"When changing from a more closed, compartmentalized office space to a new open-plan, transparent and fluid working space, office workers were more conscious of their visibility and often found this unsettling rather than liberating," said lead researcher Alison Hirst at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K., in a news release.

Hirst and Christina Schwabenland of the University of Bedfordshire, also in the U.K., analyzed the behavior of about 1,000 employees of a local government who moved from six separate buildings into a new, shared office space. They wrote about their findings in "Doing Gender in the 'New Office,'" which was published online in Gender, Work and Organization.

According to Fast Company, Hirst "interviewed 27 women and 13 men for one to two hours over the course of three years, with two intensive periods of observation and interviews and many other visits."

Female workers told the researchers they felt as if they were always on display in the redesigned open-office space.

How Are Start-Ups Going To Address New Mothers

There was an intriguing LinkedIn article by Margaret Weniger Motherhood in Startups: Scaling a family while scaling a company that captured an interesting trend that will be hitting a lot of start-ups – how to make workplace accommodations for new mothers. Here are some excerpts from Margaret’s article:

Pregnancy Situation #1: Surviving the first trimester symptoms

This varies greatly by person and pregnancy. My first pregnancy I had a little fatigue, but for the most part, I felt great. If you fall into this category, then you’re a lucky duck. My second pregnancy, between constant nausea and fatigue I felt like a dead woman walking for 12 weeks.

I was passing out on the couch at 8 pm each night and barely able to drag myself out of bed at 7 am after hitting the snooze three times. What made the exhaustion worse is that I couldn’t have caffeine. Did I mention that about 2 pm your body thinks it’s time for a nap even after 11 hours of sleep? If that wasn’t enough, trying to downplay the nausea was another bear.

It was hard to predict what smells or flavors would set me off and I started sitting next to the door during meets just in case I needed to make a quick exit. Growing a baby is no joke and doing this while trying to maintain your workload and keep it a secret is tough. But guess what? You will survive, and when it’s done, I bet you’ll have at least one funny story to share about that time when….

Pregnancy Situation #2: Telling your boss you’re pregnant

Finding out you’re pregnant is one of the most exciting moments of your life. You are first hand living the miracle of life, and it’s almost impossible to wipe a smile off your face. As you get closer to the end of the first trimester, you start facing the reality that you have to tell people, specifically your boss. In my experience, the thought of this immediately triggered anxiety.

I started worrying about how they would react, would this impact my career, and when do I bring it up. You finally muster up the courage to say something because there are only so many loose clothes in your wardrobe and sometimes the anticipation is far worse than the actual thing.

However, you may find yourself living out your worst fear. Rather than getting a “Congrats,” you get an “Ughhhh.” If this happens to you, don’t downplay how shitty it is. That reaction is unacceptable and is an insight into how you are perceived as an expectant mother.

Pregnancy Situation #3: Does my company even have a maternity policy?

I’ve now been the first pregnant woman at two different companies. Both times a maternity policy didn’t exist, and one had to be created as a result of my pregnancy. The first time it happened. I shrugged it off as coincidence, but the second I started seeing a pattern. After speaking with colleagues of mine at other scaling software companies,

I learned it wasn’t just me who found themselves in this situation. To make matters trickier, a lot of times these companies don’t have an HR department yet or if they do the HR person hasn’t had experience with parental leave. Did I mention companies don’t technically have to provide a maternal or paternal policy?

As an expectant parent you now find yourself in a situation where you don’t know if there will even be a policy, you don’t know how much time you can afford to take off, you might not be covered by FMLA so if you don’t have a policy your job might not be protected, and you frequently have to follow up with HR or your manager to see the status of the policy.

I would say hindsight 20/20 I wish I’d asked about these policies during the interview to avoid this frustration and headache. The truth is I was afraid that if I asked an employer might not want to hire me because of the possibility, I would get pregnant and would be out for a period of time. Crazy right?

It’s hard to believe that all of these things happen before your baby even arrives. Then the day comes when your precious little one joins the world and life as you know it has forever changed.

New Mom Situation #1: Pumping at Work

Picture this. You’re a new mom who has decided to continue breastfeeding when you return to work. You got your insurance supplied pump, your storage bottles, and are ready to go except for one problem...there is no room to pump at work. So what ends up happening when you say something to your boss?

You might get lucky, and they’ll hook you up with a storage closet with a chair, or they may suggest booking conference rooms until they can find space. So awkward right? But I haven’t even gotten to the best part. You finally get to the room, do your thing, and now need somewhere to store the milk.

Since most offices are an open concept now, you get to walk through the office to the community refrigerator where your breastmilk is on display to everyone. If this isn’t living the dream. There are absolutely things you can do to make this better, but I think the bigger point is you shouldn’t have to.

As a new mom, it’s hard enough leaving your baby. The last thing you need is to have to worry about where you’re going to pump, how you’re going to store your milk and does everyone know that’s what you’re doing in that room.

New Mom Situation #2: #MomGuilt

I couldn’t write this blog without bringing up a dilemma most working moms face regardless of their industry or position, Mom Guilt. It starts that first day you go back to work and have to leave your baby at daycare or with the nanny.

For me, I was excited to return to work because I’ve learned working makes me a better wife and mother. Despite knowing this, I still found myself in tears as I handed my baby over to someone else. I was flooded with guilt for wanting to go back to work and leaving my baby. I wish that were the end of the guilt, but it is only the beginning.

Particularly at a startup, it’s about the grind and hustle to do whatever it takes to help the company get to the next level. Sometimes this means to travel; sometimes it’s networking events, it’s staying late when you have momentum because speed is everything in startups, or attending an impromptu happy hour with a senior leader.

Now that you have a family these events or expectations carry more weight and you’re continually faced with the decision to be with your little peanut or attend the work event. If you’re like me, it can sometimes feel like there isn’t a win.

If you go home, you love being with your family, but there is still a little FOMO that you’re missing out or might be overlooked for a promotion because you aren’t always at the office. If you do decide to prioritize work, you are plagued with guilt that your baby won’t feel loved, you’re not a good mom, and shame on you for choosing your career over your child. Hang in there. It won’t go away because it’s how we’re wired but it will get better.

Is It Time to Change Bro-Culture Of Start-Ups?

The lack of sensitivity to young mothers is not the only challenge that start-ups have in being female friendly. The start-up world has to take a serious look at their bro-culture.

Dan Lyons explains it this way:

“… "bro culture" tends to prioritize young men over all other employees, creating an environment that's ripe for toxic behaviors like excessive partying and systemic harassment of colleagues.

When you walk into a typical start-up and see foosball tables, dart boards, beer kegs and basketball hoops attached to a lot of cubicles you do not have to go too far out on a limb and say that this is not the most female friendly environment. 

Aine Cain wrote the following in her Business Insider article 'Bro culture' might be insidious, but it's not unavoidable

So how does a company become infected with bro culture, and why does it seem to plague startups the most?

Part of it boils down to representation. The lack of women in leadership roles in certain male-dominated fields is a "chicken or the egg" problem. A lack of female leadership in some fields leads to fewer female mentors and fewer companies where women have a position at the upper echelons of the organization, which it turn results in fewer women entering that industry and becoming leaders themselves.

It's a vicious cycle. Only 6% of investing partners at venture-capital companies were women as of 2014. This marks a drop from 10% in 1999, according to the Diana Project at Babson College. Meanwhile, as CNBC reported, only 9% of senior IT employees are women, according to the 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey.

In a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment, successful startups can scale rapidly. If concrete measures to encourage values such as inclusion and fairness aren't planted in the beginning, they tend to get lost in the growth.

"Now the reality is if that bro culture isn't acknowledged and intentionally corrected, you end up in a situation where you've created something that's incredibly valuable that all of a sudden has extreme risk surrounding it, because of that culture," Ken Ziegler, CEO of cloud-computing company LogicWorks, tells Business Insider.

"If leadership doesn't have an intense focus on both building and sustaining the right culture for your business and the people you want to attract, it's very easy for a toxic one to take over," CEO of HR tech platform YouEarnedIt Autumn Manning tells Business Insider. "Building the right culture means paying attention to it from day one."

Where Is This All Going?

Women now represent over half of the professionals in the workplace today. While they still are under-represented in senior management, they are making traction. If you look at the CHRO and VP of Human Resources roles, you can see that they are majority led by women.

Changes will be coming. A warmer work environment, a less male-dominated space where the female perspective is considered and not taken for granted, and a culture that will be built to help fight off harassment not promote it.

Welcome to tomorrow – today.