How Employers Are Disadvantaging Women Without Even Knowing It

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When New York gubernatorial candidates Cynthia Nixon and Governor Andrew Cuomo were due to debate in August 2018, much of the pre-debate talk was about how cold the debating hall would be. Cuomo is famous for wanting to debate in chilly temperatures. And he normally gets his way. But Nixon and her team were steadfast in their position that the female candidate shouldn’t have to debate, i.e ‘work, in uncomfortable temperatures for the benefit of her opponent. They sent an email to Cuomo’s team requesting that the ambient temperature in the debate hall be no lower than 24° C.

The battle of the thermostat isn’t just confined to debate halls. For the past few years, the matter of who gets control of the workplace temperature dial and how low or high they can set it has become an issue of workplace gender politics. And workplaces are allowing this problem to fester. That’s because when the summer months hit and the air con goes on, half of the population is at risk of being uncomfortably cold for the benefit of the other half; women, through no fault of their own, are less comfortable at cooler temperatures. And men are less comfortable in warmer temperatures.

A report published in the journal Nature found that the “thermal comfort standard” that determines indoor climate control settings was established when workplaces were predominantly male-dominated. So when the air conditioning goes on in an office or debating hall, it is pre-set to keep men comfortable. Another study, conducted in Germany, found that women are less productive and effective when working in colder temperatures. They actually perform worse at maths and writing tasks when the dial is set lower.

Other research suggests the problem is quite widespread. According to a study of 2,000 UK workers, carried out by air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance specialists Aspect, found that the biggest complaint about workplace discomfort was the temperature. More than half of the women polled said their place of work was too cold to be comfortable.

The research found that 47% of women working in the UK find the ambient temperature where they work uncomfortable. Just over half (50.2%, 508 out of 1012) of women complained that their place of work is too cold. And 42% of men had the same issue. But men were more likely than women to find their place of work uncomfortable because it’s too hot – hence the popularity of Antarctic levels of air conditioning. And it’s when the air conditioning is too cold, or when the heating is too low, that women experience a disproportionate amount of discomfort.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE is a specialist in organisational psychology and health with a focus on workplaces. He believes employers are failing to get the basics right when it comes to creating a comfortable working environment for all.

“Discomfort can be a distraction, but it’s also a matter of respect from employers toward their people. Employers ought to go further than simply meeting health and safety requirements to ensure workplaces are as pleasant and comfortable as possible.

“Those that don’t send a signal to their people that their physical comfort and freedom from distraction are a low priority, which can be demoralising for any workforce. That’s not to say organisations need to invest in high-spec fit-outs and luxurious surroundings, but they should focus instead of meeting a basic standard of environmental comfort appropriate for their industry.

Nick Bizley, director of operations at Aspect says: “The fact that more than half of women complain of workplaces being too cold tells us something important. Studies have shown, for example, that office climate standards was set at a time when most workplaces were male-dominated, so the ‘ideal temperatures’ are really ‘men’s ideal temperatures’. If employers were to ask their people if they were happy with the temperature and to allow them to work in different areas with different ambient temperatures, this could help tackle that particular problem.”

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Samantha Acuna is a writer based in San Francisco, CA. Her work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, and Yahoo Small Business.