Why cold offices may have a chilling impact on women

Author: CBS News
Women work better in warmer environments. Photo via CBS
Office temperatures are based on the metabolic rates of men, which explains why many women say they need to bring sweaters and scarves to the office to keep warm. Now, new research finds those ice-cold office temperatures may have a very real and very chilling effect on women: lower productivity and cognitive performance.

The “battle of the thermostat” — when women advocate for warmer temperatures while men say they’re chill with ice-cold air conditioning — prompted researchers Tom Chang of USC’s Marshall School of Business and Agne Kajackaite at Germany’s WZB Berlin Social Science Center to design a real-world experiment testing the impact of room temperatures on real-world tasks.

Their findings that women’s productivity and skills suffer under colder temperatures may prompt managers to fiddle with their office thermostats. After all, many offices set their thermostats to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit based on a 1960s formula tied to men’s higher metabolic rates. Since then, women have flooded into the workplace, prompting some to ask why men’s comfort is given precedence over theirs.

“Office thermostats are set to the ideal temperature for men,” one Twitter user noted on Thursday. “The female workforce is too cold to work at full capacity because their needs are ignored. IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”

Research experiment

The researchers asked more than 500 college students to perform a set of cognitive assignments, like math and word problems — then the researchers messed with the thermostat, turning it between a chilly 61 degrees and a toasty 90.6 degrees.

The tasks were relatively simple, such as adding two-digit numbers without a calculator, building as many words from a random assortment of letters within five minutes, and solving a logic problem.

Productivity hit

Women performed better when the room was warmer, while men did better when the interior climes were colder. The impact may seem small, with women increasing their performance on math problems by 1.76% for every 1.8 degree increase in temperature, but those improvements can make a difference in real-world tasks day after day.

“It’s been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men, but the idea until now has been that it’s a matter of personal preference,” Chang said in a statement. “What we found is it’s not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter — in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try — is affected by temperature.”

The “battle for the thermostat,” in other words, is about far more than comfort.

Turn up the heat

Women who wrap themselves in cardigans and fleece while at the office will likely warm to their recommendation: Turn up the thermostat if a workplace employs both men and women workers.

“Given the relative effect sizes, our results suggest that in gender-balanced workplaces, temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards,” the researchers said in their article, published by academic journal PLOS One.

As for men, they didn’t perform as well when the room was warmer, but the impact wasn’t as great as cold temperatures on women. When the room increased temperature by 1.8 degrees, men provided 0.63% fewer correct math answers, they noted.

That doesn’t mean offices need to be 90 degrees to improve women’s productivity — 75 degrees could well suffice, the researchers seem to suggest. As Chang noted, “Even if you go from 60 to 75 degrees, which is a relatively normal temperature range, you still see a meaningful variation in performance.”

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