Do we really make our workspaces our own?

Written by
Laurie Cohen

02 Aug 2016

02 Aug 2016 • by Laurie Cohen

Plenty of us do. A photo or two, a memento here and there, a postcard (remember them?), maybe even an occasional curio or conversation-starter – we all know the drill.

But why do we do it? The question could be applied to anyone and everyone, but I think it’s particularly relevant to women. I first gave the matter serious thought some years ago, when a visiting female academic took one look at a colleague’s office and promptly branded the display of family pictures both unprofessional and anti-feminist.

My colleague and I had always believed such arrays served to brighten up the place. Our visitor suggested otherwise, complaining not just that credibility was being undermined but that associations that feminists had long struggled to eliminate were being evoked. Ouch.

I still don’t know whether she was right or wrong, but the episode at least made me notice how few men – especially those in senior roles – shared the bent for turning a workspaces into a portrait gallery. This inspired me to carry out some research.

With Professor Melissa Tyler, of the University of Essex, I interviewed dozens of female office workers. We found many women personalise their workspaces within what they perceive to be clear boundaries. Let me outline a few of the scenarios we discovered during our study.

Doing it because you want to

Naturally, some women have no regard for unwritten rules or others’ opinions. They create environments that are right for them, motivated entirely by their own wishes and preferences. This is confidence in action and great to see.

Doing it to reflect your personal life

Some women might be aware of the ideal outlined above yet at the same time conscious of a line they shouldn’t cross. Accordingly, they reflect their personal life – but strictly in moderation. As one respondent said: “I feel it’s the right balance.”

Doing it to please

To quote one of our interviewees: “I’m a bit of an approval junkie.” Often it’s a question of how others will perceive what they find. Keen to appear welcoming or cheerful, some women derive satisfaction from positive reactions to their workspaces.

Doing it to impress

“Pleasing” isn’t quite the same as “impressing”. The latter is more about projecting a certain image – say, of being approachable or professional. “I’m here to do a job,” said one of our respondents, “and I want people to see I’m aware of that.” 

Doing it out of expectation

Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on a particular reason. Instead there’s just a feeling – a suspicion that there’s some kind of informal and unspoken requirement that demands conformity. Many of our interviewees spoke of this uncertainty.

Not doing it at all

For some women the idea of workspace personalisation is a non-starter. The only place for their photos, children’s drawings and keepsakes is in the desk drawer. Someone or something has convinced them this is the way things ought to be.


Most women workers will relate to at least one of the above scenarios. It’s a shame more don’t feel able to relate to the first – and yet the sad fact is that it’s no real surprise. There exists, after all, a wealth of research that shows women in the workplace are much more likely than men to feel “invisible”, to lack a sense of genuinely belonging and to suffer from “imposter syndrome”.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of being in control. The most straightforward solution is for women to be themselves – or, from an HR point of view, for women to be allowed and encouraged to be themselves. This is easier said than done, but it’s a path that has to be pursued if meaningful and lasting change is to be brought about.