Working Women: Here’s Why Your Office Is Always Freezing

Workplace temperatures are designed for men, according to a new study.

(Illustration: Neil Webb/Getty Images; Marc Fusco)

Aug 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Ali Swenson is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is editor-in-chief of Loyola Marymount University’s news outlet, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and has worked in nonprofit media.

In the sweltering heat of a summer during what’s expected to be the world’s warmest year to date, people all over sunny Los Angeles are wearing sundresses, shorts, tank tops, and sandals.

Nicole Smith is wearing long pants and a sweatshirt.

“My office is really cold,” said Smith, an intern at an audio start-up. “Even though it’s super hot out, I put a sweatshirt on. I’ve even brought fuzzy socks to work before.”

Many women are all too familiar with the counterintuitive habit of grabbing a winter-friendly jacket or scarf for work during the summer months. New research suggests this might be because workplace temperature models—the ones that control high carbon-emitting air conditioners—are designed for the comfort levels of men.

The study, published Monday in Nature Climate Change, says most offices follow a “thermal comfort” formula developed in the 1960s that’s meant to suit a 40-year-old, 154-pound male. Because women tend to have different metabolic rates—among other physiological and functional differences—this can mean male employees are refreshed by the air conditioning while female employees are frozen out.

Standard values for office temperatures may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35 percent, the study says, leading workplaces to crank up the air conditioner when women would prefer it lower.

This may seem like fodder for a battle of the sexes at the thermostat, but adjusting the office temperature could benefit everyone. Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of the carbon emissions caused by air conditioners in the U.S.—emissions that hover around 100 million tons every year—and a few degrees on the thermostat could have a substantial positive impact on the environment.

Positive impacts aren’t limited to the environment, though. Understanding women’s needs means respecting a segment of workers that often struggles for equal voice and equal pay in the workplace. Beyond metabolic rate, there are other simple anatomical reasons that women might be more sensitive to the chill than men, according to Alan Hedge, an ergonomics professor at Cornell University.

“Men, on average, have more muscle than women, and muscle helps to generate body heat,” Hedge said. “Women tend to be less hairy than men. And functionally, men and women wear different clothing. The clothing that women wear tends to have much lower insulation value than the clothing men wear.”

While the decades-old formula may have suited the demographic in the workplace back then, women now make up more than half the workforce in many industry sectors. If many of these employees are freezing, productivity could suffer, according to Hedge, who developed a software system to test work speed and accuracy against office temperatures.

“When the temperature is 68, people seem to do a lot less work than when the temperature is 76,” he said.

While the new study has caveats—namely its small sample size of 16 women—the study’s authors and Hedge come to the same simple solution for making the workplace more habitable for everyone while decreasing carbon emissions: Turn up the heat.

“In summer conditions you could save energy by cooling the entire building less, and provide extra cooling for those workers that need it,” said Boris Kingma, a lead author of the study.

To reduce complaints of overheating, Hedge suggests following the model of “Cool Biz,” an initiative by the Japanese government to turn down the air conditioner and allow casual work attire during hot summers.

“Companies should be helping the climate and saving energy by raising their thermostats to 75 or 76 [degrees],” said Hedge. “If some people are too warm, then let them wear lighter clothing.”