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Diversity and equality in the workspace

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Ensuring equality is one of the major challenges that any business faces as it flourishes and expands. Every HR department is well aware of this, particularly in light of the continued strides being made in highlighting the benefits of diversity and inclusion.

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What is sometimes forgotten or overlooked, though, is that equality is desirable in all sorts of ways. In tandem, inequality can manifest itself in myriad forms. Consider, for instance, an issue as ostensibly mundane as workspace personalisation.

Are you reading this at your desk? If so then the chances are that your immediate surroundings, at least to an extent, will offer some type of snapshot of your life. You might have a photo or two, a curio, a memento, a conversation-starter – the usual stuff.

But have you ever paused to ask why you personalise your workspace? And, perhaps more pertinently, have you ever asked whether you personalise it for yourself or for someone else?

These questions might be applied to anybody, but I think they’re especially relevant to women. I first posed them to myself some years ago, when a visiting female academic took one look at a colleague’s office and instantly condemned the display of family pictures as not only unprofessional but anti-feminist.

My colleague and I were taken aback. What could be wrong, we thought, with trying to brighten up the place? According to our visitor, such arrays shouldn’t be welcomed: instead they should be derided for undermining credibility and evoking associations detrimental to the fight for women’s rights.

Whether she was right or wrong is a debate for another time. What matters here is that the episode made me notice something: generally speaking, men are much less likely to adorn their offices with portraits, souvenirs and bric-a-brac – and those who do are usually viewed not as unprofessional or uncommitted but as nice guys and even would-be leaders.

This encouraged me to carry out some research, so, with the University of Essex’s Professor Melissa Tyler, I interviewed dozens of female office workers to find out more. We soon discovered that many women personalise their workspaces within what they perceive to be invisible boundaries and unwritten rules – and that these boundaries and rules are central to answering the questions outlined above. Below are some of the scenarios we repeatedly encountered during our study.

  1. Some women aren’t bothered about invisible boundaries, unwritten rules or even others’ opinions. They fashion environments that are right for them, motivated purely by their own wishes. This is confidence in action. In such instances…

Women do it because they want to

  1. Some women may recognise the above ideal yet still remain conscious that there could be a line they shouldn’t cross. Here, as one of our study respondents commented, the focus is on striking “the right balance”. In such instances…

Women do it to reflect their personal life – but strictly in moderation

  1. Often it’s a case of how others will perceive what they find. Determined to appear welcoming or cheerful, some women seek positive reactions to their workspaces. To quote one interviewee: “I’m a bit of an approval junkie.” In such instances…

Women do it to please

  1. It’s vital to note that “pleasing” isn’t the same as “impressing”. The latter is more about projecting a certain image – usually one of professionalism. As one of our respondents said: “I want people to see I’m here to do a job.” In such instances…

Women do it to impress

  1. Sometimes it can be difficult to identify a specific reason. Instead there’s just a feeling – an inkling about some kind of informal and unspoken need to conform. A number of our interviewees spoke of this nagging uncertainty. In such instances…

Women do it out of expectation

  1. For some women the notion of workspace personalisation is a total no-no. There’s only place for their photos and keepsakes: the desk drawer. Someone or something has convinced them that this is how things should be. In such instances…

Women don’t do it at all

Our study suggests most women workers would relate to at least one of the above scenarios. It’s unfortunate that more don’t feel able to relate to the first, but it’s also no surprise. After all, research has consistently revealed how women in the workplace are much more likely to lack a sense of belonging and to suffer from “imposter syndrome”.

The simplest solution is for women to be themselves – or, from the perspective of an HR department striving to ensure a productive and happy business, for women to be allowed to be themselves. This may well be easier said than done, but it’s a course that has to be taken by any organisation interested in bringing about both wider change and its own success.

Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of
Imagining Women’s Careers.

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