For more than a century, employers and employees have had to navigate issues of gender equality in the workplace. In recent years, there seems to have been more focus on generational differences, which leads one to wonder — why this shift in focus away from gender and onto the various generations at work?
I recently sat down with Dyane Betteker, the Washington DC A&D representative for Herman Miller, and Margaret Gilchrist Serrato, workplace strategist for Herman Miller, and asked this very question.
Serrato suggests that while gender differences in the workplace may be as influential as generational differences, women may be reluctant to call attention to those differences after working so hard to attain equality in the workplace.
The idea of equal rights for women is a relatively new concept; in 1878, Congress introduced a constitutional amendment to allow suffrage for women, but it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. Forty years later, President Kennedy tackled the issue of workplace equality by establishing the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. In 1963, the commission’s report detailed widespread discrimination against women in the workplace and made recommendations to address those issues, such as revamped hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and child care. That same year, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to pay a women less than a man would receive in the same job.
Despite the hurdles, women in the workplace are a modern reality, and their numbers are steadily increasing.
Moreover, as women move into leadership positions, the influence of the younger generation becomes more apparent; members of Generations X and Y are more comfortable with women in leadership positions, and a solid half of all new entrants into the workforce are women.
But what is the effect of more women in the workforce, especially in leadership positions?
Trends suggest women are more likely to break down physical and managerial barriers in the workspace, creating more informality and encouraging collaboration and open communication.
After sitting down with Serrato and Betteker, I realized furniture manufacturers have given us myriad product choices to address the issues of communal workspace and personal comfort, two things that have sprung from this growing trend of female workplace leadership.
For example, women were once expected — if not required — to wear skirts, high heels, and stockings to the office each day, which oftentimes left them cold in the winter and uncomfortably warm in the summer. While dress codes for women (and men!) are no longer as rigid, most office workers can relate to concerns regarding temperature.
Herman Miller addresses the individual whose internal thermometer is constantly playing catch-up with their C2 Climate Control, which provides personal control of heating and cooling as well as air filtration.
Another item to aid in a better, more productive work environment is the designer’s Sayl chairs, which are designed to fit a wide range of body sizes and weights. And we definitely can’t forget the always popular Aeron Chair, designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf. It’s available in three different sizes to fit the user based on height, weight and the position of their neck, arms and legs.
In addition to flexible furniture and communal workspace, our female clients are — more and more often — requesting designers include wellness and/or nursing rooms as part of our office designs, to facilitate a greater work life balance for new mothers.
In light of these changing trends, I ask: Have women in the workforce fundamentally influenced the way we design today’s workspaces?
I would love to hear your comments.
(All information regarding the Herman Miller products were provided with permission from Herman Miller. Margaret Gilchrist Serrato is a workplace strategist for Herman Miller. The information listed about women in the workplace (historical facts not included) are based on her research.)