Ethics Sage Receives Accounting Exemplar Award
Gender Equity and the Glass Ceiling

Is Office Furniture Gender-Neutral?

Are Office Chairs from Mars and Office Desks from Venus?

I’m all for gender equality and think it’s time is long overdue. Some give lip service to it but don’t carry out good intentions with supportive actions. I’m also for treating all people fairly in the workplace regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and how one self-identifies from a sexual perspective. However, I draw the line when it comes to furniture. That’s right. Office furniture now has a gender orientation just as do people.

Before you conclude I should be committed to some institution for saying it, let me explain. I was reading a story in my local newspaper this morning taken from a Chicago Tribune story from earlier this month and read about a question being asked whether an office furniture dealership had a male or female brand. The question had been addressed to Jennie Niemann, CEO of Chicago-based Forward Space, and a dealer for office furniture maker Steelcase. I bet you think the question was designed to determine whether Jennie catered to men or women? Wrong!

The question was raised by a branding consultant Bradley Peacock from Chicago-based Peacock Nine. Peacock was helping Niemann craft the brand's personality based on the feelings she wanted the brand to evoke in her customers. And in the process, her company underwent something of a sex change. (I didn’t say that. The article did. I’m not that far gone).

The article went on. Do cubicle walls and swivel chairs have a gender? What does that even mean? A good question, I think, because if the answer is ‘yes,’ then a whole new industry has been born. That is, furniture intended to attract a particular gender by creating an aura of being gender-specific.

Some of the comments in the article make me wonder what brand consultants really do. What is their purpose in life? In the workplace?

"It's interesting for brands to consider a gender reassignment," said John Manley, senior vice president and group strategy director at ad agency DDB.

Not everyone sees it that way. Leo Burnett chief strategy officer Mick McCabe said gender rarely comes up in conversations about brands, especially those with mass audiences, like Coca-Cola, Samsung or McDonald's. Shifting brand personalities reflect the breadth of human emotions and characteristics generally, independent of gender, he said. "Just as they stretch and flex in humans for certain moments, brands can do that as well," McCabe said. Huh?

But for Niemann, the male/female question inspired a moment of reflection. And so Forward Space embraced its feminine side, which informed a series of decisions, including its logo design (softer edges) and thematic color (purple). Purple runs throughout its new showroom in Oak Brook, Illinois designed to send the message that "we can help our customers to create innovative work environments that inspire people to excel wherever and however they work," said Niemann.

The importance of a brand's gender depends on the category, or so I have read. Krissy Vanderwarker, art director and strategist at Chicago branding consultancy Seedhouse, which specializes in consumer packaged goods, said clients increasingly want their brands to be gender neutral. "Now a lot of people are doing the shopping because traditional gender roles are breaking down, so there is less of a target to moms," she said, pointing to Quaker and Lays as gender-neutral snack brands. I get that but furniture?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought that a comfortable chair is a comfortable chair. Maybe not. Who knows? Perhaps I’ve been mistaken all these years. Maybe this explains why I have back problems. I’ve been sitting in female-specific chairs rather than male-oriented ones.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 17, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: