The Personal is Political and Personally, I'm Freezing
“It’s so nice out here,” a SunTrust employee said to me as we crossed paths outside her bank. “I was freezing in there.”
Though lighthearted, her comment echoes a struggle women have faced for decades. Office spaces are too damn cold. And it’s no wonder: Fanger’s thermal comfort equation, which many company heads use to set office temperatures, was calculated using a 40-year-old male subject weighing 154 pounds. For women, that means powering through arctic temperatures for eight or more hours a day. As my friend experienced, companies crank the AC so high in the summer that stepping outside feels like defrosting.
There are a few reasons why women are more susceptible to cold. Our bodies contain more fat and less muscle in proportion to men, resulting in slower metabolic rates. Our extremities are naturally three degrees colder. Birth control tends to raise our core temperature, making the internal and external temperature difference feel more extreme. We’re more prone to anemia due to blood loss during menstruation. We also wear lighter clothes in the summer. When it’s 100 degrees outside, lugging a sweater around is plain inconvenient.
Still, office thermostats are set to appease men. Fanger’s equation was devised in the 1960s when women made up a smaller percentage of the workforce. Why hasn’t it improved in the nearly half century since, especially now that we make up half?
Unsurprisingly, men control the dial. Two men in particular, Kevin Kampschroer and Steve Sakach, control the temperature in 9,000 government office buildings. Even female-run firms sometimes don’t have control over the temperature on their floor if they are based in shared office spaces. People liken the dilemma to a “thermostat war,” but it is an uneven battle.
This is in part because older office spaces were designed to accommodate men from the start, ACs running at full blast. In these spaces, even sympathetic employers can only adjust the temperature within a five-degree range. Kampschroer and Sakach suggest that women open windows as an alternative to space heaters, another way of telling them to adapt to a man’s world.
Female-friendly sources suggest making offices warmer to increase productivity, but there are more important things at stake than company profits. I propose raising office temperatures as a step toward gender equality, an impossible goal as long as our comfort is an afterthought. It is not enough to hire women if those women are working in hostile environments.
It is not only a step toward gender equality, but also a step toward environmental sustainability. Residential buildings and offices contribute 30 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions. Raising office thermostats from 72 to 77 degrees can save 11 percent on power bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. When buildings are designed to accommodate women they reduce emissions and cut costs.
One ex post facto solution is for businesses to implement micro-climatization systems, allowing for more individualized comfort. Apps like CrowdComfort allow women to go above the heads of their male colleagues and send complaints directly to their facility manager. Until these changes are more widespread, women should advocate for changes in their own workplace that keep them from freezing.