This Is Gendered
The Gendered Aspects of Space
by Alina Karlsen and Tess de Rooij
The Norwegian word "rom" and English word "space" can have many meanings. Yet, a common denominator of our conceptions of space and the spaces we navigate is that they are all gendered. Low-status spaces, inferior coordinates and ignored places are all systematically linked to femininity. Next to that, women as well as other marginalised groups are taught to take up as little space as possible - be it in posture, in conversation or intellectually - and punished if they do not conform to this norm. In this piece, we examine gendered conceptions of space in both the abstract and concrete. From culturally and religiously determined associations between spatial coordinates and gender, to how gender roles and hierarchies manifest themselves in the tangible spaces we occupy, to the way gender determines how much space we are expected and allowed to take up in conversation. This piece is a contribution by THIS IS GENDERED - the first feminist encyclopedia. THIS IS GENDERED seeks to demonstrate all the ways in which the world is gendered, this in A-Z order. For this issue of trass! Tidsskrift, we discuss three topics covered in the encyclopedia - space, office and interruption - to shed light on the gender dimension of the spaces we occupy.:
noun, often attributive [ \ ˈspās \]
- A period of time
also : its duration
- a: A limited extent in one, two, or three dimensions
b: An extent set apart or available
// parking space
// floor space
c: The distance from other people or things that a person needs in order to remain comfortable// invading my personal space
It's like a law of nature that superior coordinates - top, right, front - are associated with the male, and inferior coordinates - bottom, left, back - with the female. These distinctions are near-universal and present in almost all cultures. Before we turn to a host of examples to illustrate these associations between space and gender, note that the distinctions we will discuss (between top and bottom, male and female, public and private, et cetera) all rely on dichotomous thinking. Such thinking reinforces and reproduces the many binaries - the gender binary being the primary example - that shape how we conceive the world. While we argue that the gender construct is central to how we understand even abstract concepts, we do not suggest that this is natural. In many places, a binary gender structure was enforced by colonial powers. In North America, where over a hundred tribes recognised more than two genders, some having as many as six, colonisers sought to exterminate these gender structures. Similarly, before colonization, many African countries did not see gender as a binary in the way that their European colonists did, where for instance the Dagaaba people (present-day Ghana) assigned gender based on energy, not on anatomy.
For those of us who grew up imagining a (Christian) god as a white man with a long beard living in the sky, the association between masculinity and upwardness ... is deep-wired in the brain.
Many cultures and religions associate the top, or upwardness, with masculinity. Downwardness, by contrast, is feminine. Think of the Greek god Zeus, occupant of the sky where he rules lightning and thunder, in contrast to the idea of 'mother earth'. For those of us who grew up imagining a (Christian) god as a white man with a long beard living in the sky, the association between masculinity and upwardness and, indeed, divinity likely is deep-wired in the brain. The Atoni, an ethnic group living in Timor (Indonesia), organise space into female, left, below, downward, earth, behind and seaside versus male, right, above, upward, heaven, in front and mountainside. The sea represents the underworld and so comes that femininity is associated with death and sickness, whilst masculinity is associated with life, resulting from a linkage between the mountain and the upperworld. In cultures where the above associations are reversed (for instance, the left being sacred and the right profane, as in ancient Egypt, Mongolese and Chinese society) the superior coordinates are still associated with the male (the left is masculine, the right feminine).
Turning to modern-day Western society, the urban-suburban distinction is a telling example of spatial gender divides. The urban space is predominantly seen as male. This is the public, fast-paced, vivid realm of productivity, where intellectuals gather to solve important real-world issues. The pinnacle of male, urban productivity is the skyscraper. Not just for its phallic shape, but more so for literally reaching into the male sky. The skyscraper is where masculinity, superior status, intellectual labour and power come together, represented in perhaps the single most important status symbol: height. In contrast to the urban space, the suburban space is characterised by tranquility, passivity and mindlessness. In this private, domestic realm, the motherly figure engages in reproductive labour as she nurtures and raises her family. As such, the urban-suburban divide points at another gendered spatial distinction: between the center as male and the periphery or outwardness as female.
noun [ of·fice | \ ˈä-fəs , ˈȯ- \]
1: A place where a particular kind of business is transacted or a service is supplied: such as
a: A place in which the functions of a public officer are performed
b: The directing headquarters of an enterprise or organisation
c: The place in which a professional person conducts business
The average office worker sits at their desk for 6,5 hours a day. That is 1,700 hours a year. So, the office environment better be nice for all workers. Yet, male office workers often find themselves in a more comfortable position than their colleagues with different genders.
As goes for many products, non-adjustable office desks and chairs are designed based on the height of the average male. So, people who are significantly taller or shorter compared to this average height may find themselves either with their knees pressed against their desk or with their feet hovering above the ground. Since women are generally shorter than men, they are more likely to be given a desk that's too tall. Indeed, numerous women complain about office furniture that's clearly not made for them. Similarly, women often experience their office environment as too cold, because standard room temperature is based on the body of a 40-year-old, 70kg male.
The layout of offices are gendered too. Many people work in what's called an open office landscape, which became popular in the 1950s for it promised to promote interaction amongst workers and decentralise power. In reality, however, most office workers dislike open offices, as they get interrupted all the time and feel like they are under constant surveillance of their colleagues. Especially women report that they feel watched and sometimes objectified or sexualised by co-workers. Some, however, get to escape the hustle and bustle of the open work floor. The most senior workers are allocated a private office, oftentimes located on the exterior sides and upper floor of office buildings, thus providing more natural daylight. Indeed, privacy and daylight are great measures of occupational status. And it's still men who hold most senior positions. Their offices are buffered by (often women) receptionists and secretaries who safeguard the boss's privacy, but whose own desk areas can be freely walked into by anyone at any time.
Many office environments also lack space for breastfeeding. People who breastfeed are, supposedly, expected to pump in the bathroom. Given that it's not unusual for employers to offer their employees massage therapists, nap pods and even make the office pet-friendly, the lack of breastfeeding facilities is rather painful. The same goes for the lack of rooms for silence and prayer, used by workers for religious practice or to safeguard their mental wellbeing. Luckily, change seems to be on its way as especially bigger institutions like universities, libraries, public buildings as well as corporate employers are starting to accommodate breastfeeding facilities and prayer rooms.
Increasing office temperatures, arranging adjustable desks and chairs for everyone and creating breastfeeding and prayer facilities are easy fixes that can and should be implemented right now.
The physical environment many of us occupy every day is designed in ways that benefit men and senior workers over women and assisting personnel. Increasing office temperatures, arranging adjustable desks and chairs for everyone and creating breastfeeding and prayer facilities are easy fixes that can and should be implemented right now. The perhaps deeper problem of discriminatory office layouts should make us think about the gendered assumptions underlying these physical arrangements. Why should women workers and assisting personnel always be available for others to disturb them? Why do women working in open offices feel they are exposed to the gaze of their colleagues?
At the same time as women are socialised into being constantly accessible, they are also conditioned into taking up as little space as possible. Physically, by sitting in ladylike positions with their legs crossed, as opposed to manspreading, and in conversation, where they are prone to be interrupted.
- noun [ in·ter·rup·tion | \ ˌin-tə-ˈrəp-shən \ ]
1: An act of interrupting something or someone or the state of being interrupted: such as
a: A stoppage or hindering of an activity for a time
// our conversation continued without interruption for over an hour.
b: A break in the continuity of something
//internet service interruptions
2: Something that causes a stoppage or break in the continuity of something
// a rude interruption
// watching television without commercial interruptions
"Mr. Vice-President, I'm speaking," said Kamala Harris, now Vice-President of the US, when Mike Pence interrupted her during the Vice-Presidential debate in October 2020. The video of Harris taking back the floor went viral, and Harris received applause from women worldwide who are tired of being interrupted.
Does our gender determine how likely we are to interrupt others? And does it make us more likely to be interrupted? A lot of research has studied these questions - unfortunately, all conceptualising gender as a binary factor, thus only looking at differences in interruption behaviour between men and women. When we simply count the number of interruptions made in conversations, men show to interrupt more often than women - but the difference is minor. The effect of gender becomes more significant, however, if we have a closer look at the type of interruptions made by women and men.
Interruptions can be intrusive or affiliative. The former type functions to take over the conversation in order to assert dominance. It is an antagonistic kind of disruption, as Pence's attempts to break into Harris's speech. Affiliative interruptions, by contrast, show support of and agreement with what the speaker is saying. Anything from "I know what you mean!" to "Interesting, I didn't know!" counts as an affiliative interruption. A supportive "hmm hmm" would also fall in this category. Affiliative interruptions account for most of the interruptions made by women, whilst men tend to make more intrusive interruptions. Kids as young as 8 years old already display similar tendencies.
When counting who gets interrupted more often, no clear gender differences have been found. So, women are just as likely to be interrupted as men. Why, then, did Harris's self-assertion strike a chord with so many women? Perhaps because women tend to be "punished" for interrupting in conversations more often than men. Regardless of gender, all interrupters are generally seen as more assertive, confrontational and disrespectful than those being interrupted. Yet, only when women interrupt men this assertiveness is labelled indecent. By breaking into the conversation, a woman challenges the quiet, abiding behaviour that's expected from her and reverses the expected power relation in the conversation. So, because her interruption threatens the gendered moral order, it's seen as not only confrontational but also as inappropriate. Therefore, men get away with interrupting more easily - "But not this time," is what Harris must have thought.
By breaking into the conversation, a woman challenges the quiet, abiding behaviour that's expected from her and reverses the expected power relation in the conversation.
Gender dynamics in speech and language can be hard to recognise and difficult to overcome. If you feel uncomfortable, side-lined or muted in a conversation, ask yourself what's causing these feelings. Is someone interrupting you? A brave comment like "Mr. Vice-President, I'm speaking", may work as a way of regaining space in a specific conversation. Still, men's domination of physical and conversational room continues to shape how we relate to the spaces around us. We need to respond to that consciously and forcefully. Marginalised groups of people are "reclaiming the street" - an ongoing campaign to regain access to the many spaces that are unsafe to them - demonstrate how to do so. Another way to reject male spatial domination is to reject the stereotype that women have a poor sense of direction, which originates from the idea that only men can control space. These examples serve as a reminder that nobody owns the spaces they occupy. Space is personal, but it also continues to be a power struggle and, in turn, a political issue.
THIS IS GENDERED // Alina Karlsen (she/her) is studying International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University in The Hague.
Tess de Rooij (she/her) is a student of Health, Medicine and Society at the University of Cambridge. Together they did their undergraduate in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam.
THIS IS GENDERED is the first feminist online encyclopedia. Inspired by the claim that "everything is political'', we claim that everything is gendered. The encyclopedia is an ongoing process to prove this claim, in A-Z order. We aim to describe the gendered workings, histories and aspects of all the things that make up our world, from everyday objects to institutional biases. Excited about the page and want to get involved? Please do reach out! We are looking for some extra hands (/minds) to help write and edit new entries. Check out www.thisisgendered.org for more information.
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