'Sexist' air-conditioning: Women perform far worse when offices are too cold, study finds 

Women are often forced to wear jackets and jumpers to stay warm in overly air-conditioned offices 
Women are often forced to wear jackets and jumpers to stay warm in overly air-conditioned offices  Credit: Lauren Hurley PA 

Claims of sexist air-conditioning have plagued offices since women entered the modern workplace.

But a new study has found that as well as making women shiver, overly-cooled offices also damage their performance.

Most climate control systems in modern offices are based on the resting metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man, which runs up to 30 per cent faster than a woman’s.

Current employment rules set by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) allow for temperatures to be as low as 60F (16C) even thought The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends 68F (20C) heat for a comfortable workplace.

Now research from the University of Southern California have found that women perform considerably worse than men when temperatures fall to 60F (16C), and do not catch up in verbal tasks until conditions hit around 22C. While women averaged 19 points at the lowest temperature they achieved 23 at the highest.

For maths skills, women only become comparable with men when temperatures reach 71F (32C). The opposite was true for men, whose performance worsened as the temperature rose.

“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," said study author Tom Chang, associate professor of finance and business economics at the USC Marshall School of Business.

“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.

"People invest a lot in making sure their workers are comfortable and highly productive. This study is saying even if you care only about money, or the performance of your workers, you may want to crank up the temperature in your office buildings."

Offices are traditionally heated for the comfort of men 

Previous research by Maastricht University Medical Centre found that the optimum office temperature for women was 75F (24.5C). Men, in contrast, were happiest at 71F (22C).

Current air conditioning standards are derived from research conducted in the 1960s which was based on the resting metabolic rate of one 11 stone, 40-year-old man.

Men typically have more heat generating muscle than women and so feel comfortable at cooler temperatures. Metabolic rate also lowers with increasing age which means that an older workforce is likely to need higher office temperatures.

The new research was carried out on a group of 543 students in Berlin who were asked to complete a number of tests in conditions ranging from 16C (61F) to 32C (91C).

In the maths test, participants were asked to add up five two-digit numbers without using a calculator. For the verbal task, participants were asked to build as many German words as possible given a set of ten letters.

The researchers say their findings suggest that in mixed gender workplaces, the temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards to increase productivity.

"One of the most surprising things we learned is this isn't about the extremes of temperature," added Dr Chang said.

"It's not like we're getting to freezing or boiling hot. Even if you go from 60 to 75 degrees, which is a relatively normal temperature range, you still see a meaningful variation in performance."

The authors note that the increase in female performance at warmer temperatures appears to be driven largely by an increase in the number of submitted answers, which they interpreted as evidence that when women feel too cold, they do not try as hard.

The research was published in the journal Plos One.

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