Office too cold? Blame this 1960s-era formula that forgot women existed

New frontiers in the gender gap

Is your office thermostat sexist? Maybe, according to a study that says the industry-standard formula for setting office temperatures is biased toward men.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change on Monday, examined how physiological differences between men and women affect the suitability of a decades-old formula for setting workplace temperature.

According to the researchers, most offices use a "thermal comfort model that was developed in the 1960s" to determine the best setting for the thermostat. The model relies on factors such as air temperature, air speed, and vapor pressure to determine what percentage of people will be comfortable at a particular temperature. But it is calibrated to the resting metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man who weighs about 154 pounds.

Details of the study

Women tend to have slower resting metabolic rates, which means they generally produce less heat than men do, Pam Belluck writes for the New York Times. To determine how apt the current formula is, Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt of Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands ran an experiment.

The researchers had 16 women in their 20s do seated work while wearing light summer clothing in a respiration chamber that tracked their inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide. Researchers also measured the women's skin temperature and internal body temperature.

Overall, the researchers found that women's average metabolic rate was 20% to 32% lower than the rates used by the standard temperature-setting formula—meaning the women likely were cold.  

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The findings fit with previous research that shows women generally prefer warmer rooms, the researchers note. Kingma and van Marken Lictenbel write that adopting a new formula could help make women more comfortable in the office and save energy. "If you have a more accurate view of the thermal demand of the people inside, then you can design the building so that you are wasting a lot less energy, and that means the carbon dioxide emission is less," Kingma explains.

Improving the formula

But other experts caution that finding a perfect formula could be difficult. Khee Poh Lam, an architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says that buildings often "squeeze more people in" than they were designed to accommodate. More people means more heat, which makes determining an optimum temperature setting difficult, he says. Still, he notes that improving the formula could help employees to be more comfortable, and therefore more productive.

Joost van Hoof, a building physicist at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, wrote in a commentary accompanying the study that different clothing worn by men and women could also complicate picking a temperature. For instance, men still tend to wear suits in the summer, while many women wear lighter clothing.  

Also see: 3 reasons to turn up the thermostat

While Hoof says more research is needed, he concludes that the study "could be significant for the next round of revisions of thermal comfort standards" (Belluck, New York Times, 8/3; Eunjung Cha, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 8/3; Preidt, HealthDay/ U.S. News & World Report, 8/3).


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