Office Chill: The Controversy Over Gender-Based Temperature Preferences
As summer temperatures rise past the 100-degree mark in numerous areas across the nation, office workers find themselves in a starkly contrasting environment. The same short-sleeved shirt that left you perspiring on your commute could have you hunting for a cozy blanket or browsing for portable heaters by midday. Despite the scorching heat outdoors, the phenomenon of the office’s “winter in summer” is hardly new.
Salvatore Basile, author of “Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything,” traces this back to the 1950s when air conditioning became a standard feature in buildings. Property owners were keen to demonstrate the luxury of air conditioning, often overdoing it to the point where it became uncomfortable. A building exhibitor once advertised that his air conditioning made people ill, just to emphasize its chilling capacity.
So why are offices still so cold? The reasons are manifold, ranging from different physiological responses to temperature across genders and body types, outdated temperature models, and the design of office air conditioning systems that cater to more formal dress codes. There’s also the popular belief that a cooler environment enhances productivity. Sheryl Sandburg, former COO of Facebook (now Meta), revealed in her 2013 book “Lean In” that Mark Zuckerberg kept the office at a brisk 59 degrees to boost productivity.
Architects and engineers further explain that airflow in buildings is designed for maximum occupancy. However, with many employees now working from home at least part-time, buildings are rarely filled to capacity. Additionally, buildings are designed to withstand the hottest day and don’t necessarily adjust for an average summer day. David Lehrer, architect and communications director at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, likens it to having a high-performance NASCAR engine when all you need is a trip to the local grocery store.
The situation is exacerbated by the use of outdated and inaccurate models for determining office temperatures. Ruiji Sun, a researcher at the Center, explains that these models erroneously assume that all humans react identically to specific temperatures. Women, in particular, seem to feel colder than their male counterparts. The term “Women’s Winter” has emerged on social media as women express their frustration with freezing office environments.
In 2016, a CollegeHumor sketch humorously highlighted this disparity, depicting women in an office setting shivering and sporting icicles while their male colleagues applied sunscreen. Kassia Miller, the writer of the sketch and now a television screenwriter for shows like “The Good Place,” noted that complaints about cold office temperatures usually come from women.
So why do women seem to feel colder in offices than men? Basile suggests that air conditioning was a sexist technology favoring men due to biological differences and men’s traditionally heavier office attire.
However, scientists disagree on this issue. Boris Kingma, a senior biophysics researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Applied Scientific Research, argues that reactions to temperature can be influenced by factors such as body size, composition, clothing, and activity level. Kingma’s 2015 paper suggests that office temperatures are typically set based on the thermal needs of a 40-year-old man weighing 154 pounds.
Fortunately, there are potential solutions to this problem. One approach is to allow employees to dress more casually. Japan’s ‘Cool Biz’ campaign encourages workers to wear lighter clothing between May and September, while indoor temperatures are set at 82 degrees Fahrenheit to save energy.
Another solution is to give employees access to fans. Stefano Schiavon, a professor at UC Berkeley, suggests raising the office temperature by 5 degrees and providing fans at each desk or installing them in the ceiling. Employees who prefer warmer temperatures can leave their fans off, while those who feel hot can turn them on.
For those who still feel uncomfortable, Schiavon recommends requesting a change of seating. Seats near windows tend to be warmer, while those under vents in the center of the office offer a cooler alternative. The key is flexibility – allowing employees to adjust their attire or the air around them as needed.
In conclusion, while outdated office temperature models may be causing “Women’s Winter,” there are feasible solutions available. Whether it’s choosing the best standing desk near a window for warmth or opting for an electric height adjustable standing desk near a cooling vent, it’s important for employers to consider employees’ comfort and health benefits when designing workspaces.