Cold war: Why your office thermostat is sexist

It's summer. Outside, people are sweltering on the streets.

But in offices throughout New Zealand, women are shivering at their desks, wrapping themselves in cardigans they felt stupid bringing to work. Men carry on in their short-sleeved shirts, blithely unaware of their female colleagues' discomfort.

What is the meaning of this temperature inequality? How has the patriarchy found its way into the air vents?

The answer is that science is sexist. To be fair, it's more complicated than that - and it's all to do with metabolism. 

Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan is a senior lecturer in Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. She helpfully broke down how the metabolic process works so that even I, a moron who barely scraped through NCEA Level 1 General Science, could understand it.

"Humans are endotherms, so we are constantly faced with the challenge of maintaining a constant body temperature despite changing environmental conditions," she explains. 

"So when ambient temperatures are too low we must increase our internal heat production, and when too hot we must try to dissipate heat as efficiently as possible."

The temperature of our environment has a significant impact on all the essential processes that are taking place in our bodies at any given moment - pumping blood, repairing tissue, even breathing.

"Everyone has a zone of temperature across which they are most comfortable," says Dr Miles-Chan.

"This sometimes, but not always, corresponds to the zone of temperatures across which the body does not have to modify heat production (thermogenesis) or evaporative heat loss (sweating). This zone is called the thermoneutral zone."

This Goldilocks-like state of ideal metabolic function differs between individuals based on a variety of factors, including body composition, energy expenditure, age and gender. 

When designing a workspace, engineers have to provide the occupants of said space with a controlled climate adjusted for factors like the average age and weight of the workers. Air-conditioning systems, controlled by a thermostat likely hidden away in some secret cavern as seems to be the case in the MediaWorks newsroom, are based on a model developed in 1966 called Standard 55

That model was based on studies consisting mostly of male participants, using a measurement unit (the 'metabolic equivalent', or MET) widely believed to have been developed from data collected from one 40-year-old, 70kg man. 

So the modern indoor workspace climate was based entirely around the thermoneutral zone of a specific individual.

It makes sense to establish an average temperature based on the average person's needs, and it might have made sense in the 1960s when most of the white-collar workforce was men.

But in 2019, when at least half the office is likely to be women, it doesn't make sense - and it means female employees are getting the short end of the thermometer, to coin a phrase.

"Women are not just small men - we have different body compositions and different metabolic profiles," Dr Miles-Chan says. 

"The two main female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, interact with all major metabolic pathways, so are going to influence how we sense and respond to changes in ambient temperature."

Men tend to have more muscle mass, higher activity levels and larger bodies than women, translating to faster metabolism which keeps them warmer. 

Women, on the other hand, have less blood flow in their hands when exposed to cold and their skin temperature may be lower than men

As a result of these physical and physiological differences, a number of studies indicate women function better in a climate two or three degC warmer than men's preference. A 2015 study concluded women feel optimum comfort at about 24 - 25degC . 

According to my trusty thermometer app, it's 19degC at my work while I'm writing this, and I am freezing. 

"As women (in general) have less muscle, are smaller, have less testosterone and are less active, they produce less heat which means their "furnace" is functioning at a lower level," says Dr Toby Mündel, Associate Professor at Massey University's School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition.  

"This is one of the main reasons they feel cooler, or prefer warmer temperatures to men. On top of this, women have fluctuations throughout their menstrual cycle and of course post-menopausal that means they are less 'constant' than men." 

Women seem to be more sensitive to temperature in general - the female participants of a 2011 review expressed greater dissatisfaction than their male counterparts in the same thermal environments, both when too warm and too cold.

Clothing also plays a part, as standard office attire for women tends to be skimpier than the suits, long-sleeved shirts and pants typically worn by men. 

The cold war of the sexes isn't confined to the office. A 2017 study by CORGI Homeplan found that one in three couples regularly argue about the temperature in their homes, with men more likely to say it's too hot while women feel it's too cold.

While women are losing valuable energy to the simple act of trying to stay warm, men are performing at their peak because the environment was literally designed for them. I might just be a raging feminist, but that doesn't seem fair. 

So should workplaces crank up the heat to level the playing field? Dr Miles-Chan isn't so sure.

"It depends on what the objective is, and also surely on the demographics of the workplace. Surely majority rules, right?"

While some studies indicate workers with desk-based jobs are more efficient when they feel warm, she says there's evidence that keeping the thermostat lower may benefit employees in the long run, such as helping those with type 2 diabetes improve insulin sensitivity. 

"By maximising thermal comfort we may also be minimising thermogenesis, rather than exploiting a chance to increase our metabolic rate."

Dr Mündel is also hesitant to recommend a temperature overhaul.

"If a workplace caters for one of the sexes more, then the other will be catered to less. Having said that, men are generally more adapted to warmth and so should be able to cope with an increase in workplace temperature."

He says having the thermostat on a cycle might provide a happy medium, and the additional heating costs could well be balanced out by improved workplace comfort and productivity.

WorkSafe NZ doesn't specify minimum or maximum temperatures in the office, but offered the sage advice that "being flexible is critical".

Boringly, the answer to the thermostat dilemma seems to be compromise. It's unlikely most offices will introduce a constantly shifting temperature or a unisex uniform, so it looks like women will have to do what we do best - grit our teeth and get the job done. 

Cardigans on, ladies.