Offices Are Obscenely Cold & Science Says It Affects Women's Ability To Work
Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Ah, summer. A lovely time when we're meant to enjoy short sleeves, dresses, open-toed shoes, and other types of lighter outfitting that allows us to feel the warmth of the sun on our skin for a precious three or four months. But if you happen to work in an office, you likely know the double-edged sword that is this season. Without fail, those delightfully toasty temperatures outdoors always come with an unwelcome partner: overactive air conditioning.
At my last office job, summers were marked by all the women at the company spending their workdays curled up in giant cardigans, heavy-duty scarves, or even blankets, which they specifically left at the office because of their daily necessity. Most of us also had personal heaters underneath our desks, also used daily. This is ridiculous for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the total waste of energy from our building pumping cold air into the office to the point that individuals must simultaneously be running electrical heating units to reach a tolerable temperature level.
People of all genders, of course, have different ambient preferences, but in general, the men seemed to not much mind the cold compared to the women. And there's now science showing obscenely cold temperatures really do tend to affect women and men differently: A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE found women tend to be more productive and perform better at higher temperatures, whereas men tend to work better at lower temperatures.
Do cold offices put women at a disadvantage?
Researchers had 24 groups of people (a total of over 500 people) take a series of tests in rooms with temperatures purposely set to one of a range of temperatures between 61 and 91 degrees Fahrenheit. The participants would receive monetary prizes based on how well they did on their tests, thus motivating them to do as well as possible on them. They found women generally got higher test scores and completed more questions on the test when they were in a room with a higher temperature; meanwhile, men tended to score better and complete more of the test when they worked in lower temperatures.
"Ordinary variations in room temperature can affect cognitive performance significantly and differently for men and women," the researchers explained in a news release. "Consistent with their preferences for temperature, for both math and verbal tasks, women perform better at higher temperatures while men perform better at lower temperatures."
Productivity played a big role in why people's scores lowered from uncomfortable temperatures.
"The increase in female cognitive performance appears to be driven largely by an increase in the number of submitted answers. We interpret this as evidence that the increased performance is driven in part by an increase in effort," the researchers note in the paper on their findings. "Importantly, the increase in female cognitive performance [at higher temperatures] is larger and more precisely estimated than the decrease in male performance."
So women perform better and are more productive in warmer rooms, whereas men do better when it's colder. However, the cold impairs women's performance more than the warmth impairs men's performance.
The sexist history of the thermostat.
It's important to note that most buildings set their thermostats to keep men, in particular, comfortable. A 2015 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found most heating and cooling systems today still use a formula developed in the 1960s based on the "average male" body. The formula determined the optimal temperature to maximize comfort based on the metabolic activity of a 40-year-old, 155-pound man.
Meanwhile, women tend to have a lower metabolic rate and thus produce less heat. That study showed these thermostats might be overestimating women's metabolic rate by up to 35 percent—meaning women are seriously not exaggerating when they say it's too cold in the office. They pegged women's preferred temperature to be about 77 degrees F, compared to men's preferred 72 degrees F.
(To make matters all the worse, one of the researchers behind that 2015 study later told Popular Science that most buildings today actually fall between 68 and 72 degrees F—which is too cold for everyone.)
Want to support women in the workplace? Raise the office temperature.
"Ultimately, our results potentially raise the stakes for the battle of the thermostat, suggesting that it is not just about comfort, but also about cognitive performance and productivity," the researchers of the PLOS ONE study write. "Our results suggest that in gender-balanced workplaces, temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards."
Listen, women face enough unique obstacles at work—from the enduring glass ceiling to the lack of adequate parental leave policies to sexual harassment. Adding intolerable atmospheric conditions in the form of a sexist thermostat is really just adding insult to injury.
If you're a business owner or office manager and want to support your women team members, in addition to addressing all the aforementioned issues, consider finding a way to simply crank up the temperature a few degrees. It's a small and easy step toward evening the playing field; plus, it'll literally just make half your employees better, more productive workers.
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