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What Do Women Really Want?

September 21, 2006
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It's a fact -- more women are in the workplace than ever before.

According to the Bureau of Labor & Statistics, some 58 percent of women are employed today compared to 36 percent in 1960 while The New York Times recently reported that some 77 percent of women in the prime ages of 25 to 54 were now in the workforce.

This trend seems sure to continue for some time -- an AARP study and other sources have noted the percentage of women to men enrolled in college has risen dramatically: 64 percent of young women are enrolled in college, compared to 60 percent of young men.

According to Debra Tannen, author of the bestseller You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, workplace norms were developed well before women entered the arena in such significant numbers, creating an environment more congenial to men than women, including its physical settings.

These days, many office-furniture designers and manufacturers develop their new products with much greater sensitivity to this ever-more prominent audience. "From health-care facilities to legal offices, big pharmaceutical to consulting firms, we've seen a huge influx of women in the workplace," says Jan Johnson, Allsteel vice president of marketing.

Her company is a leading contract furniture designer and manufacturer, and invented the lateral filing system back in the 1960s.

"We also recognize significant differences between what men and women want and need to be productive and comfortable in their workspace. Our job is to develop workplace solutions to successfully address these differences," explains Johnson.

What's important to women as they work?

The Allsteel company conducts observational research throughout the year to seek out emerging trends in the workspace, including how (differently) women work in their office environments. Their research includes some obvious and not-so-obvious findings:

· The majority of training programs are led by women. These female trainers are not only in charge of the curriculum, but often end up setting up the room, and need to move heavy tables and awkward chairs into a variety of configurations. That can also be the case in the office, where guest chairs and mobile tables can be heavy and awkward to move around one's work area.

· While observing trainees, researchers found women place personal bags and briefcases on the floor or hang them from their chair back for lack of a better option. Again, the same holds true at their desks, where purses may get stuffed into a file drawer or behind the CPU under their desk.

· Many women also complain of chairs with poor back support, and those that are too big, and/or simply aren't comfortable to sit in seven-plus hours a day.

In addition, many women "perch" in their seats -- sitting upright and very close to their computer monitors -- in comparison to a number of men who prefer to recline or to stretch when working. Those perchers also express frustration when the arms of their chairs come in contact with the work surface and prevent them from positioning their chair close enough to work comfortably.

What would make the work environment work better? Recent conclusions:

· Lightweight, easily reconfigurable training tables and chairs -- to make it physically easy and convenient for women to change a training environment on their own.

· Storage hooks under training tables. In the "why didn't they think of this before" category, a single hook which rotates outward from underneath its tables for users to hang purses and other personal items is advisable.

· Truly height-adjustable work surfaces. The need to adjust the height of one's work surface may be because of individual stature or the desire to move from sitting to standing height throughout the day.

· Properly sized and adjustable office chairs. Research also showed that women are more interested in the overall visual appeal of their office, including softer lighting and color. They also place much more importance than their male counterparts on a clutter-free, organized environment with smart storage, concealed wires, and the ability to move work up and away from the work surface.

Also: Women prefer to work in collaboration with other associates. They are less interested in maintaining workplace hierarchy, and are more interested in an environment that promotes creativity and collaboration.

The biggest satisfaction driver for women -- after the typically highest scoring "meaningful work" and "proper recognition" -- is flexibility in the work environment. Women are often more interested in creating a work/life balance than men, and therefore seek out alternative times and locations to get their job done.

This column was prepared in cooperation with ARA Content.


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