Staircases can be sexist: when the design of stairs is a hazard to high heels.

Of all the keywords used to organize my blog posts by topic, the number one by far is “signage”.  The keyword (under my menu bar “Topics”) yields 193 separate articles.  Given the aspirations of this blog, it’s a hard subject to avoid: one of the key elements of a human-conceived, built environment is that critical, additional layer of meaning conferred by denoted (rather than connoted) instructions or exhortations.  And the best way to denote is through an overt display—one whose fundamental purpose is to promulgate the message indicated by the verbiage on the display in question.

Untangling the message from my prolix, I’m talking about a sign, obviously.  Even when signs aren’t the central feature to one of my blog posts, they’re often essential for sussing out the exact motivation behind a certain display or exactly how the sign’s creators want to steer people.  Go anywhere with an obvious human thumbprint and a codified written language and we’ll find signage.

Given the fact that most signs’ functions are simply to inform (even advertising signage is, fundamentally, information skewed to promote), it’s far more interesting when the message serves an additional purpose, either an intentional innuendo or, perhaps even better, unintentional but recognized by at least one of the sign’s many viewers.  And then there’s the best of all: when it’s impossible to tell if they’re ironic or not.  Within a few hours of my arrival in Anchorage not so long ago, a sign alongside the street greeted me with an unusually high degree of cynical snark.  A structure that looked like a former residence (now converted into a small office) sat on a steep hillside, with front-door access at the street level (West Third Avenue), and the parking lot a good two stories below.  Nothing too complicated.

And, just a few paces to the east of this office/home’s front door, there lies a steep stairwell allowing access to the corresponding parking lot.

staircase with warning signs against Alaska winter weather


I suppose I could ponder over why an office building that couldn’t possibly house more than twenty personnel (and most likely fewer) would need a parking lot as big as the one at the bottom of the stairs.  But why bother asking such a question?  Not only is this the Land of the Free, but it’s the biggest state in America, 2.5 times larger than Texas, and if the owners of this property want a big parking lot, they’re going to get it.

Truth be told, I have a sneaking suspicion that the parking lot serves as overflow for several other, larger office buildings nearby and on the opposite side of the street, even though this small former residence provides the most direct access.  Here’s a photo about a half-block away, with the office buildings on the left side of West Third Avenue, and the below-grade parking lot on the right.

Nonetheless, the little office/home enjoys the closest and most direct access to this parking lot.

Admittedly, the office/home is much larger than it appears from Third Avenue, given its position on a steep slope, which is why I speculated a maximum of twenty workers (rather than eight).  And it boasts its own little stairwell with direct access.

stairwells to an oversized parking lot

But there can be no doubt that, if this parking lot earns it size, it serves several other buildings nearby, like the red mid-rise structure visible in the background from this vantage point.

Oversized though the lot may seem, I’m not one to criticize smartly planned parking lot sharing strategies.  And regardless of who the lot accommodates, I’m mostly taken by the sign guiding people along the staircase providing access up the steep slope leading to Third Avenue.

staircase with warning signs

The sign is a bit wordy, but any woman (or, for maximum inclusivity, any man) who wishes to wear stiletto heels, and must confront a tremendous risk this poses at a metal grate staircase.  The risk is so severe, in fact, that women best refrain from heels altogether, at least when mounting this staircase to access any of the buildings along 3rd Avenue.  Not only does the sign admonish against the worst case scenarios—either ruining an expensive pair of shoes, serious injury, or death (take your pick)—but it provides reasoning as to why the property owners chose a seemingly impractical material for constructing this staircase.  Yes, it’s metal, and metal would seem far more slippery in Anchorage’s climate, one that, while semi-arid, receives enough periods of low-grade precipitation that the more predictable material of concrete is probably impractical.  In the long Alaskan winter, precipitation would collect as puddles on an impervious surface like concrete (or even wood), resulting in thick sheets of ice for up to half the year, requiring considerable maintenance and salt to fend off the elements.  And to prevent the obvious slip-and-fall—as well as the ensuing litigation, this being America.

Though bad for high heels, the metal is actually optimal in this climate; the grates and ridges allow a sort of percolation, reducing the likelihood of water ponding at the crook in a stair (the point where rise meets run), then icing over.  The warning sign appears at both the bottom and top of the staircase.

staircase with protections against Anchorage winters

Despite the hyperbolic snark, the spirit and intent of the sign is dead serious.  The designers of this snow-resistant staircase even made the considerable effort (and investment) to include an awning over the staircase’s entire length.  And the awning allows for the overhead mounting of regular illumination, which is likely essential during the two-month period when Anchorage gets fewer than five hours of direct sunlight each day.

The devil-may-care humor of the sign belies the fact that this is a smartly conceived staircase, perfect for managing one of the steepest slopes in downtown Anchorage.  And it’s certainly much better than the opportunistically conceived stairwell I analyzed many years ago in Afghanistan.  Maybe it is still sexist from a chauvinistic, patriarchal standpoint: it implies that women need to be protected from their own fashion when it misaligns with the environment or climate.  But that begs the question: do Alaskan women even wear high heels to work?  Does flannel pass as business casual?

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5 thoughts on “Staircases can be sexist: when the design of stairs is a hazard to high heels.

  1. Chris B

    Off topic: T-shirts pass as business casual today, sadly.

    (Or maybe I’m just upset that I have accumulated several thousand dollars worth of actual business dress clothes and neckties over the years…)

    But no stilletos. 😀

    Reply
  2. Chris B

    Also OT: did you perchance visit 49th State on W. 3rd? We enjoyed several wonderful al fresco meals on its rooftop decks.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Chris– Perchance, we TRIED to visit 49th State. Perhaps it’s become too popular for its own good–arriving on a bright warm sunny day at 4pm, we were told there’d be an hour and 45 minute wait to get a space on the deck. Not feeling like waiting, we went a block down to the much smaller, much less popular, presumably inferior Broken Blender, which seems to subsist or collecting the spillover crowd from those who can’t hack the wait at 49th State. In hindsight, we probably should tried Glacier Brewhouse, were the food is no doubt superior to Broken Blender but it had no outdoor seating. And on a 70-degree day in Anchorage with zero humidity, you want to be outdoors. Everyone was out.

      Thankfully, we got to try 49th State at its original location in Healy, AK (just outside Denali National Park) a few days earlier. So we got our fix. And not an ankle was sprained in either location. Merrell and Columbia and Keen (or even Crocs) are a bit easier to manage both the rugged trails and the metal grates than those high heels.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I think wait time at 49th depends some on whether there are cruise tours in town. On the days when they weren’t, it wasn’t hard to get in (for lunch, at least).

        But that was also before COVID. Our experience this year on a long trip was that cooks and servers seemed to be in short supply, and some wait times were long.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Definitely. Even in remote Alaska, they were facing the obvious effects of a labor shortage. And sadly, at least two or three key tourist ventures in Anchorage (such as the Alaska Experience Theatre), last operated in September 2019 and are now clearly shuttered, even though tourism picked up this summer over last.

          Reply

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