Dr Amy Thomas bij kast met maquettes
Amy Thomas: “We think about male bodies as being the standard for many designed products.” (Photo: Heather Montague)

What implications does office design have on gender equality? Dr Amy Thomas is doing a historical investigation to explore this topic.

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“I came to TU Delft in the Summer of 2017 for a tenure track position in the Department of Architecture (Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment). I’m an architectural historian and what I find interesting is how political economy, so politics and economics, interface with the built environment. How do big words and ideas like neo-liberalism, capitalism or deregulation actually manifest in the design of a desk or the layout of an office. I’m interested in the mundane, day-to-day lived experiences of the built environment, the grey matter of architecture, if you like. 

The project I’m currently working on is through an NWO Veni grant and it’s called ‘Her Office’. It’s a historical investigation of how workplace design was somehow gendered or had implications for gender equality. My initial proposition was to have six social actions that I thought typified the office. I wanted to look into the physical ramifications of things like desk working, managing, socialising, arriving & leaving, using the toilet and designing. Now as I’m getting into the research, I’m sort of redesigning the project as I go.

At the moment I’m really interested in women’s occupational health and the history of it in the design of offices. One place this manifested was in ergonomics. There are a lot of discussions about the ‘reference man’ and we think about male bodies as being the standard for many designed products, the most famous being crash test dummies. But it’s interesting that women’s bodies were probably the most studied in terms of ergonomics because women typically occupied lower-paid clerical positions and as such were considered extensions of machines like typewriters and later word-processors.

Whereas a male manager or executive desk and office would be designed with issues like symbolism, status, and materiality in mind, a woman clerical worker’s desk would be designed as a piece of equipment. Lots of tests were done on clerical workers’ chairs, how they sat, what made them most efficient and effective, because this was important for the productivity of the clerk. It’s interesting how prominent a woman’s body was in terms of testing this kind of furniture, but it was all for what we might consider the wrong reasons. 

‘What makes gender different to sex?’

Women’s occupational health has not really been very well understood or very holistic. The feminist movements in the ‘70s and ‘80s were interested in trying to expand the notion of what a woman’s work is through looking at health, issues like stress for example, and how that played into the design of offices. But another thing I’m just getting into is the issue of the psychology of spaces and the way we perform. I think the word ‘performance’ is crucial because we often think about performance as how businesses or employees perform, but actually we can also think of the workspace as a kind of stage set for when we go to work.

We perform a certain kind of role and we also perform our genders. In gender theory this has existed for a long time. What makes gender different to sex? It’s not something that’s biologically determined, it’s a social construct. So, for example, I’m trying to understand the difference between being placed in a very large open plan secretarial space, which historically was where women worked, versus having a private office and what kind of impact that has had. 

I don’t want to focus too much on the present-day implications of my work because I don’t want that to lead the research too much. I want to find what I find. I have spoken to various groups and organisations that want to know more about this topic. It’s really about creating a level playing field for women. How can we create a comfortable working environment for women? There are some key things like breast pumping and breast-feeding rooms. You’d be surprised how many organisations have very bad facilities for women. There’s a whole science of breast feeding explaining what it takes to be able to lactate and most of the existing spaces don’t give that. 

What’s interesting to me is that whether you’re a mother or not, as a woman you have a reproductive cycle that is very different to what a man’s body experiences. I firmly believe that if men had this reproductive cycle the office would look quite different to how it actually does. All women have to go through menstruation, menopause, and hormonal fluctuations which have very real impacts on our day-to-day experience at work. It’s quite striking that there are almost no ergonomic developments for pregnant women in the office. Those are things that I think could very easily be changed just by consulting women more. 

‘Don’t assume that science is neutral territory because it certainly isn’t’

I think there’s also a social question about the traditional conflict between home and work for women and the context of remote working today. If you look at the data from the pandemic, women’s productivity decreased while men’s productivity increased. There are some very basic fundamental discrepancies between what the responsibilities of women are at home, still in this day and age, and what men’s are. If you look at the current context, we talk about hybrid working and flexible working as being better for women, but perhaps in terms of their health and well-being it might not be as straightforward as that. I know people doing surveys in offices in the Netherlands and some data shows that most women would prefer to work more in an office. I think these are kinds of issues we can be more critical about. We can’t think that there’s a unanimous opinion on certain things, it’s a not a one size fits all setup. 

With this project, I often get asked how we can solve gender inequality through design. People want it to be a design problem with design solutions, but it’s not. The social and political aspects are so deeply interconnected with the design that we can’t really separate them. I think it’s about looking critically at things, having an eye for the nuance of situated realities that people experience, and not assuming that science is neutral territory because it certainly isn’t.” 

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