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Mix Talking Point: are our spaces designed for men?

We explore the extent to which the built environment, specifically workplaces, can be a reflection of wider social inequalities.


2 min read

Chief womens members club workspace london bar

This article first appeared in Mix Interiors #229

Words: Chloé Petersen Snell

As a woman you’re taught – and learn –from a young age that cities and public spaces aren’t built for you. Don’t cross the park at night, avoid unlit areas, dark alleys. There’s a fear of being out in the street that most women I speak to will relate to.

Surprising then, that it wasn’t until I visited a women-only coworking space five years ago that I even had the notion that offices weren’t really built with us in mind either. The designer showed me furniture that had been custom-built with shorter legs and temperatures regulated to suit female bodies – women’s metabolic rates run up to 32% lower than rates in the standard chart used to set building temperature. There was a specific space for breast pumping that wasn’t a toilet cubicle, but a lavishly wallpapered and warmly-lit room with an extra-wide seat to make the process more comfortable.

I’d not seen many (if any) of these spaces in my years working in the design world, surprising perhaps in an industry where womens’ voices are seemingly plentiful – our annual 30 under 30 list is roughly 84% female on average. But as you peer up the ladder that gender diversity diminishes. Spaces that we live and work in can work for everyone, if they’re designed by everyone – and women are drastically underrepresented in senior decision-making positions worldwide.

Since 1972 much of our lives has been measured against ‘Standard Person’ or ‘Reference Man’ as he became known; a 20-something white man on which crash test dummies are modelled, medical tests and experimental vaccines are trialled, seats are moulded around, and air conditioning regulated upon. Office equipment, from desks to tech, are often the standard dimensions suited for the average adult male. The list goes on.

This isn’t a case of creating spaces lavished in pink frills and other gendered design clichés, but active, systematic changes. Providing well-lit pathways to carparks and public transport. Increasing the number of bathrooms available – women take on average twice as long as men to use bathroom spaces – and providing safe and comfortable breast-feeding or pumping spaces for new mothers. These rooms can double for private spaces for those experiencing menstrual or menopause related symptoms (one of the last true taboos in the workplace).

A three-year study concluding in 2018 found that open plan offices – that aim to erode hierarchal boundaries and instead promote equality and networking – made women in particular feel exposed and increased anxiety, to the point where some even changed the way they dressed and behaved in the office. Could more modular spaces extend comfort to a more diverse base of users, improving accessibility and inclusion at the same time by addressing various preferences and requirements?

The rise of inclusive and accessible design has improved the way all of us experience our spaces, and this has extended automatically to women. The built environment can drive behavioural changes and involving key stakeholders, removing any inbuilt bias and increasing empathy can result in considerate design that is comfortable and accessible for all, not just Reference Man.

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