Gender and heating in the workplace – what does the science say?

Gender and heating in the workplace

Have you ever noticed that men and women rarely agree about what temperature the office should be? Perhaps there’s some innate difference between the way men and women regulate their temperature, which presents itself in strange and often contrary ways?

Considering these gender differences won’t just make your office a more comfortable place to work – they could also save you money, protect the environment, and improve workplace morale.

But is there actually any evidence for the alleged difference in the way that men and women feel temperatures? And what does this mean for your bottom line?

Office temperatures are designed with men in mind

A recent study, published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, claimed that the majority of office buildings use temperatures that were set with men in mind and were only revised many decades ago. The “thermal comfort model” that set the ideal temperature for air conditioners and central heating systems, and that have provoked so many arguments in its time, was developed back in the 1960s, using Fanger’s Thermal Comfort model through an analysis of the resting weight of a 154lb (69kg) 40-year-old male.

The statistics that were produced as a result – and that were published by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning – calculate ambient temperatures, air speed, heat radiation and other factors, and leverage these against the 40-year-old man’s metabolic rate and clothing choices to produce a thermostat reading that is believed to be perfect for the average person.

In the 1960s, the majority of people in offices would have been men, but nowadays this is far from the case, and the metabolic rate used to calculate office temperatures may not be at all representative nowadays. In fact, the difference in the metabolic rate of the genders is stark – Dr Kingma and colleague Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt explained that the current model could overestimate women’s resting heat production by as much as 35%.

What did the study find?

We’ve all been in offices in the summertime in which the air conditioning is running at full pelt, all the women are clad in sweaters and hunched from the cold, while the men relax in shorts and t-shirts. This can be seen as evidence of the difference in the metabolic rates of the genders.

In the study, 16 female students in their 20s were asked to wear light clothes and sit in a ‘respiration chamber’ – a small room that monitors the amount of carbon monoxide and oxygen in the atmosphere. Scientists also monitored the skin temperature of their hands and their body, discovering that the average woman had a metabolic rate that was between 20% and 32% less than that of men.

The research found that women prefer an office temperature of around 24C (75F), whereas men are more comfortable at around 21C (70F). So if offices reduced their use of air conditioning to better suit women, it could increase the temperature of the office by an average of 2-3C , or 5F. Men could always dress in lighter clothes if it becomes too hot for them, but the carbon footprint and the energy bills of the office could see a continual fall.

What is the solution?

There are a number of interesting variables to consider in this study. For instance, the researchers investigated women in light clothes, but even in the summertime, men may wear suits and dress shirts, which can be particularly stifling. If men are insisting on blasting the air conditioning in your office, but are still sweltering through their suit-pants, you could consider loosening your office clothing policies during the warmer months.

Building insulation is also a key factor. Insulation keeps buildings cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and is well-known to be an energy-efficient investment that pays for itself in a short period of time. The disruption that cavity wall insulation will lead to is very minimal, as well – usually, insulation can be installed within one day, with normal business continuing throughout.

Perhaps there is a behavioural issue at play, too. It’s likely that many of the people who insist on creating the perfect working temperature in the office are more than happy to sit at home in various states of dress in order to save money on their own gas and electricity bill. Many seem to feel that the considerations that go into play when they use their own central heating can be ignored in the workplace. Instigating behavioural change is not a simple task, however – perhaps promoting environmental benefits could have some influence?

Can we believe the research?

Unfortunately, research in this area is a little less commonplace than you might hope, and while the 1960s data could be treated with skepticism, thousands of people were studied to develop it, compared with just 16 women in the more recent investigation. The questionably-small sample size was highlighted by people including one of the people involved in the original 1960s research, Danish civil engineer Bjarne Oleson, as well as an accompanying editorial in the journal.

Oleson argued that the metabolic rate has more significant variations between particular individuals than it does between the genders, and that while women may have lower metabolic rates than men, they are also smaller, and the reduced surface area helps them to better retain heat. He suggested that clothing choices have a bigger role to play than gender, and said that instead of problems with his original research, the phenomenon of women typically feeling cold in the office is because men control the thermostats.

Nonetheless, Dr Kingma continued his criticism of the decades-old statistics Oleson is responsible for, calling the metabolic rate they use “wrong”.

If you and your colleagues can’t agree on the right temperature for your working environment – compromise! Age, body type and a number of other factors also play into metabolic rates, so don’t let your discussions become a war between the sexes!

If you would like to redevelop your workplace, get in touch with us today, or check out our office design case studies.