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How to create a comfortable and efficient workspace for marginalized workers

October 15th, 2021     by Romey James     Comments

Illustration by Beena Mistry

It’s 2021 and, slowly, we are beginning to find diversity and gender parity in the workplace. Leading the progress is the Canadian government with its gender equality initiatives, including investment in more women-led businesses and proactive pay equity.

However, despite all of this, there is still so much to be done — especially when it comes to policies concerning the unique struggles all those employees of marginalized genders face in the workplace, and that demand unique solutions.

The Struggle

There are what many might describe as “little things” that influence productivity in the workplace and can specifically impact physical and mental well-being. But, as the Roman poet Ovid said, “dripping water hollows the stone.” Over time, these little things can add up to significant challenges, and if they are repeatedly ignored, they will become bigger problems in the long run.

An example is the seemingly uncomplicated issue of office temperature. According to a 2019 study noted in a New York Times piece called “Battle of the Thermostat,” the effects of temperature on cognitive performance significantly differ by gender. Men work better in cold temperatures, while women get cold (and thus less productive) more easily.

Additionally, there is constant pressure for women to be more polished and appear more presentable than their male counterparts in terms of everything from dress to make-up. The grooming gap, as it’s called, is the not-so-silent expectation that women should always conform to the norms regarding grooming and appearance, and have the resources needed to maintain this. Yes, most employees must “look the part” at work, but for men, that often only involves a haircut and passable office attire.

For women, meanwhile, that can include makeup, styled hair, and dresses or skirts. And for people who fall outside the traditional gender binary, opting for either a strictly masculine or strictly feminine dress code, hiding their identity for fear of being discriminated against.

This begs the question: who is dictating these “dress codes” office workers are meant to follow? A male executive in the ’50s who decided that a peek of shapely legs throughout the day would boost employee morale?

It is not an unrelated issue that trans and gender-diverse employees are 2.5 times more likely to report discrimination and workplace harassment than their cisgender co-workers, while women, people of colour, and those with disabilities are more likely to report discrimination and workplace harassment.

Black women, in fact, have been reprimanded for wearing their hair either in braids or in an afro style in the office because it has been considered “unprofessional” since as far back as the 1960s.

Others have found that the religious coverings they wear seem to welcome discrimination and even active harassment. In a 2017 Refinery29 piece, titled “What It’s Like To Be A Muslim Woman At Work,” Tasneem Afridi, a hijab-wearing health-care worker, recalled the fear of being verbally abused by her patients for what the hijab represented to them.

Meanwhile, trans people who appear to work in purportedly “inclusive” spaces continue to report being harassed, prevented from directly contacting clients, and even held back from promotion. Because trans individuals oppose the gender norms that have been deeply rooted in society, they are often socially devalued and discriminated, especially by those who lack education on diversity and inclusion.

It’s not just dress code, even offices are not built for everyone. For instance, plenty of bathrooms are still segregated into two sexes. This poses a particularly precarious situation for trans men and women, who are not always welcomed in those bathrooms that align with their gender identities. Moreover, conventional gendered bathrooms also exclude gender-diverse people who don’t feel comfortable using them.

Many office bathrooms also don’t have breastfeeding stations working parents can use when they have to bring their baby to their 9 to 5. This is especially important as the obligation for mothers to achieve work-family balance still exists, and which has turned into an even bigger impossibility because of the pandemic. With so many women being the predominant caregivers in their homes, the juggle is a distinct one. Canada’s female labour force even dropped from 61.2% to 55.5% just in the first two months of the pandemic, with many mothers choosing to have their spouses be the breadwinners, while they became stay-at-home parents in the absence of childcare.

The Solutions

Fortunately, these challenges can begin to be overcome by implementing more inclusive office policies, better work equipment, and with additional out-of-office support. But what might that look like? Well…

Better Office Policies

A more efficient workspace can only be made possible with better office policies that can help shape company culture and accommodate all bodies and backgrounds. For example, all restrooms should provide free menstrual supplies. In addition, gender-neutral restrooms are key ways to help everyone feel more valued. Company training can also educate employees on how to be more “accepting and welcoming” toward their trans coworkers when sharing a bathroom, according to this Harvard Business Review report.

Similarly, to ensure everyone’s comfort, safety and style, there should be a gender-neutral, inclusive dress code that allows all employees to dress and express themselves exactly the way they choose.

Companies should also try to implement family-friendly policies, such as offering on-site child-care facilities. And remember how we mentioned that mothers tend to leave full-time jobs to take care of their families? Providing employees the option to work at home can help prevent them from leaving. Many organizations, like Zegna and Honeywell, have already done this. Because of this support, they have healthier and more productive employees who feel valued now that their family needs have also been met.

For those companies planning to implement these types of policies, it’s best to gather a diverse team of employees behind the scenes who can work to brainstorm what might help build a more inclusive space. In this way, there is less likely to be policy gaps and unrealistic expectations, further empowering all marginalized employees.

Better Office Equipment

To raise productivity levels, the workplace should be a source of physical comfort, too, which can be facilitated through improved ergonomics. However, a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist — and especially not for all genders and body types. After all, we all have different centres of gravity and, as such, carry weight differently.

For instance, many women report needing additional upper body support. One of the best ergonomic accessories on the market is the ObVus Solutions Laptop Tower Stand, which can adjust a laptop screen to eye level. This can lessen the strain on the neck and shoulders. Meanwhile, top split-type keyboards, like the ZSA Moonlander Mark I, are easier on the wrists and shoulders, preventing pains in those areas.

Additionally, to reduce the risk of getting health problems associated with always sitting, they can get an adjustable standing desk, like the Autonomous Smartdesk 2 Premium.

Better Out-of-Office Support

As mentioned, women are better able to balance work and family obligations when working from home. But workplaces should not stop there. Allowing women to work flexible hours (as opposed to a standard 9-to-5) and checking in on them now and then are just some ways employers can provide additional support out of the office – along with paid family leave.

In fact, paternity leave can be a huge help to working women by splitting newborn baby duties between parents. This can help reduce the risk of developing postpartum depression and even possibly increase the mother’s income. However, though many offices offer paternal leave, men are socially pressured not to take it and continue their duties as the family breadwinner. As such, it’s obvious that, aside from infrastructural changes along these lines, there needs to be cultural changes, as well.

Even outside the office, marginalized employees should be encouraged to take leadership roles and, to do that, employers should provide mentorship and sponsorship programs that will equip them with the skills and qualifications needed to excel. The goal is to think about what they might need outside of the workspace and create policies that will help support that.

The Implementation

Although implementing these solutions might prove difficult and slow at first, developing a more comfortable and efficient workspace for all marginalized employees is a necessary step in not just boosting a company’s overall productivity levels, but promoting a culture of inclusivity and diversity, too. By taking care of its workers, companies will be able to retain more of their best talents and boost employee morale.

About the Author: Romey James is a freelance writer. She’s written about everything under the sun, from A.I. and business management to community initiatives, and occasionally shares her own knowledge on writing and freelance work. In her free time, she loves eating novelty candies, playing badminton, and going camping.

Tags: body politics, diversity, gender, work

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