Why women at work feel the big chill

Published 9:22 am Monday, August 10, 2015

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

In a study published last week, researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that since the 1960s office buildings have been cranking up their air-conditioning systems to meet the comfort expectations of middle-aged men in suits. That’s why so many women spend hot summer workdays freezing at their desks.

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If building engineers would adjust indoor temperatures by, say, 5 degrees, women would be happier and more productive, and buildings would cut their summertime energy demand by as much as 30 percent while helping to control global warming.

The study — “Energy Consumption in Buildings and Female Thermal Demand” — appeared last Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. Along with corroborating evidence from other research, it casts a lasso around a range of disparate concerns from gender equity to greenhouse gases. But women office workers tended to see a simpler point: “It’s about time somebody noticed,” one said.

Mesa Denny, who has worked for two large corporations in downtown St. Paul, said she has even worn gloves in the office. “Makes it kind of hard to type,” she joked.

Caren Dewar, an executive in downtown Minneapolis, said she’s learning to dress warmly on hot days, a lesson drawn from a recent business trip to Houston. “It was broiling outside,” she said, “and I was absolutely freezing inside.” For her part, Dewar discounts the gender-discrimination angle. “Take a look at what women wear to work,” she said, “bare arms, bare legs. Men aren’t dressed like that.”

Clothing aside, this and other studies suggest that metabolic differences help explain women’s discomfort. Women tend to have lower skin temperatures, especially on arms and hands. On average, they prefer the room a little warmer, around 77 degrees, while men prefer 72.

No surprise, then, that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers had men in mind back in 1966 when it set the industry’s standard for indoor air temperature. Calculations were aimed specifically at achieving maximum comfort — winter and summer — for a 40-year-old, 154-pound man wearing a business suit.

That’s a far too narrow slice of today’s office workers. The owners and operators of office buildings have long been interested in energy savings. Some may even care about carbon footprints. But the gender equity angle on thermostat settings is new. For all of those reasons, it might be time to consider a temperature recalibration.