Air conditioning in your office is sexist

Last Updated : 14 August 2015, 18:24 IST
Last Updated : 14 August 2015, 18:24 IST

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I  am freezing cold as I write this article at my desk. I’m wrapped up in a jumper with my legs crossed under me to keep warm, and my sleeves are pulled as far down as they go. Two female colleagues sitting opposite me are wearing their jackets, and there’s a stack of emergency desk jumpers in case things get worse. The men around us are all pretty much jacket-free. In fact, most of them have their shirt sleeves rolled up and religiously maintain that the temperature is ‘fine’.

Welcome to office life, where women battle daily with the air conditioning, and men have no idea there’s even a problem. The Washington Post recently highlighted this in a piece that made all my female colleagues and I fist pump the air with joy. Finally someone is acknowledging that AC hell is not a figment of our imaginations, but is actually a form of sexism. Men toil in their dream temperatures, while women are left to shiver. Or in my case, wrap themselves in a weird grey poncho/blanket/scarf. It’s really about time we had this conversation. There must be thousands – dare I say millions – of women out there having these exact AC office wars. I asked women on Twitter how they felt and within five minutes, I had these responses: “my coat is currently doubling as a blanket over my knees”, “Absolutely! The office was described as ‘nippy’ by my female colleague right up until June. I was sweating”, “Would weigh in but too cold to type”, “It is the scourge of my existence!” and many more.

Clearly, this is a problem, and it’s one that’s backed up by scientific research. In 1998, researchers at the University of Utah found that though women had higher core temperatures than men (97.8°F vs. 97.4°F) their hands were consistently colder. While men registered an average hand temperature of 90°F, the mean hand temperature for women was just 87.2°F.

Feeling the chill
That’s a hell of a lot colder, and scientists say it’s down to the size difference between men and women. Women typically have more body fat than men (boobs, for one), and though the fat helps keep the heat in, it isn’t great at generating heat – unlike muscle, which men generally have more of. It also helps to explain why some women are probably reading this article thinking, ‘What are you on about? I love air conditioning and I’m never cold.’ Well that’s probably because you have a similar body composition to a man, so congratulations to you on escaping this daily temperature war.

The rest of us aren’t so lucky. It might sound like it isn’t that big of a deal, but when you sit at your desk freezing every day, with numb fingers trying to type out thousands of words, it can be incredibly frustrating. In summer, it’s even worse. If you’re a woman in the middle of AC wars, you can’t just put on a summer dress sans tights like the lucky women who work in AC-less offices, because you know you’ll be colder than ever.

Instead you’ve got a choice to either sweat during your commute and lunch break because you’ve got your winter gear on, or shiver all day in the lovely new sandals you know you’ll never to be able to wear without socks in the office again. (I did trial sandals with socks the other day – but that’s another story).

It isn’t just a fashion nightmare. Cold temperature can actually lead to physical problems. I often find I hunch over more and tense up my shoulder muscles when I’m cold, which leads to back aches – and it’s scientifically proven that if you exercise with cold muscles, it can lead to muscle strains. So, that’s a no to the gym post-work then. Cold temperatures can also cause physiological effects such as thicker blood, increase in blood pressure and tightening of the airways.

If people are already vulnerable to illness, or have chronic conditions, this can be dangerous. But cold staff are also likely to make more errors with their work and be less productive. A 2004 study found that when the office temperature jumped from 68 to 77 °F (20 to 25°C),
typing errors fell by 44 per cent and typing output jumped 150 per cent.

Alan Hedge, professor at Cornell’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory, who carried out the study, said:

“Temperature is certainly a key variable that can impact performance. The results of our study also suggest raising the temperature to a more comfortable thermal zone saves employers about $2 per worker, per hour.” If that’s not an incentive for employers to finally sort out the AC problem once and for all, I don’t know what is.

Published 14 August 2015, 16:52 IST

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