Market Insight: Guest Articles Designing for Women in the Workplace by Allsteel
August 2007

Ever-growing Number of Women on the Job Creates Opportunity for Manufacturers to Develop Products Equally Supportive of Females

It’s a fact—more women are in the workplace than ever before. According to the Bureau of Labor & Statistics, 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 workplace in such large numbers, creating an environment more congenial to men than women, including its physical settings. These days, many office furniture designers and manufacturers are developing their new products with much greater sensitivity to this evermore prominent audience.

“From healthcare facilities to legal offices, big pharma to consulting firms, we’ve seen a huge influx of women in the workplace,” said Jan Johnson, Allsteel Vice President, 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.”

What’s Important to Women as they Work?

Allsteel conducts observational research throughout the year to seek out emerging trends in the workspace—including how (differently) women work in their office environments. “It’s important for us to observe people in their actual office setting, rather than simply sending out a survey,” added Johnson. “By watching work while it’s happening, we can pick up on unarticulated needs and use this research in developing new products.”

How could the office do a better job of accommodating women? Allsteel’s research includes some obvious and not-so-obvious findings:

  • Furniture that’s light and easy to handle. Allsteel found the majority of training programs are led by women. These female trainers are not only in charge of the training 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.
  • A place for belongings. While observing trainees, research 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.
  • A chair that really fits. Many women complain of chairs with poor back support, are too big, and/or simply aren’t comfortable to sit in seven-plus hours a day. And women have a right to want a better solution—in a recent study of more than 450 Boston-based female executives (conducted by the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute and the Boston Club, and published in the Harvard University Gazette), most women averaged 49 hours per week on the job, with 10 percent reporting that they spent 61 hours per week in the workplace.

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 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?

As Allsteel considers these and other observations made over the last several years, their innovative product development teams work with their in-house ergonomist to develop products that address these and other working women’s issues. A few of its recent introductions include:

  • Lightweight, easily reconfigurable training tables and chairs—To make it easy and convenient for women to change a training environment on their own, Allsteel developed Get Set™—a lightweight training system of tables and chairs which are simple to fold, move or reconfigure. The controls on the flexible tables are easy to reach and trigger, so tables are quick to reconfigure or fold and nest for storage.
  • Storage hooks under training tables—In the “why didn’t they think of this before” category, Allsteel provides a single hook which rotates outward from underneath its tables for users to hang purses and other personal items.
  • Truly height adjustable work surfaces—The need to adjust the height of one’s worksurface may be because of one’s stature or the desire to move from sitting to standing height throughout the day. Most work surfaces have been hard to raise or lower beyond a small range because of the drawers underneath or the overhead cabinets above. By combining the usual drawers and overheads into a single cabinet, Allsteel’s new Reach™ storage system frees up the worksurface to make all heights possible—especially important to women.
  • Properly sized and adjustable office chairs—As the saying goes, we all want a chair that fits ‘just right.’ Allsteel’s Sum™ chair features a new technology that evenly distributes back pressure and automatically adjusts the back support to match its occupant’s relative size, weight and sitting style. In addition, the armrests can easily move back and away from the desk, allowing women to sit as close as they like to their workstations and still maintain contact with the back of their chair so it can properly support them.

Allsteel’s newest Relate™ chair also provides the latest in ergonomic comfort and design. Relate’s unique pivoting back and weight-activated tension combine in its patented body-adaptive control to hug the user’s back and support proper spine curvature; leading to less muscle fatigue and more comfort.

Other Factors in Satisfaction

Allsteel’s conversations and observations also surfaced other, non furniture-related preferences women have for their work environments. These included:

  • Women are more interested in the overall visual appeal of their office—including softer lighting and color. They also place 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.
  • Women prefer to work in collaboration with other associates. They are less interested in maintaining workplace hierarchy and are more interested in an environment which 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—whether it’s outside the traditional 9am-5pm day, while traveling on the road, commuting or working from home.

For more information regarding female-friendly options, as well as a host of workplace solutions for the office, visit

About the Author

Rose Young
Young Office Solutions
Two Embarcadero Center #440
San Francisco, CA 94111
p. 415.399.5302
f. 415.399.5301
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