Thermostat

Offices waste energy overcooling buildings and lowering productivity based on heating and cooling standards set decades ago. (Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty)

The summertime battle of the sexes that erupts in some offices over the air conditioner setting has a physiological basis, experts say.

At Quartet Service Inc., an IT firm in Toronto, owner Rob Bracey often sees women donning sweaters. "There are office politics. It's almost a running joke how cold the women are and how hot the guys are," Bracey said.

Hilary Childs said her office feels like a refrigerator.

"I sit there wrapped in a shawl," Childs said. "My hands get cold. My fingers get cold. I type. And it's very uncomfortable. My boss sits in an office and well of course he has a shirt on and pants and all that stuff and he's OK. His hands might get a little bit cold but other than that he's fine."

Human ecology Prof. Alan Hedge of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., studies people in their working environments. Hedge said the skin temperature differences between what men and women feel in the office are real. Typically in an office, men want a temperature closer to 21 C while women prefer about 24 C.

Biological differences are part of the reason.

"Women have an insulation layer beneath the skin. They have subcutaneous fat that makes their skin smoother so in theory they ought to be better insulated. But that doesn't cover the hands, it doesn't cover the feet and the ankles and it doesn't cover the back of the neck. So those are the exposed areas that women often complain of as being colder," Hedge explained.

Other physiological differences behind the temperature divide include:

  • The average man has about 30 per cent more muscle than the average woman and muscles generate significant amounts of body heat, which is why we shiver when cold.
  • Men usually have more hair on their skin to insulate the body and hold heat near it.
  • Postmenopausal women are often in a negative heat balance with their office environment, which can lead to weight gain as the body tries to insulate itself from feeling cold at work.

But heating and cooling standards were set decades ago based on experiments on five men and women wearing the same clothes while sitting still inside a controlled thermal environment. Every 30 minutes, they voted on how comfortable they were, Hedge said.

In reality, men and women dress differently at work. Some men may wear suit jackets with buttoned, long-sleeved shirts and a tie year round with heavier shoes compared with women who may be more lightly attired.

Men may move around more on the job and sit on chairs with more padding that offer more insulation around the body, he noted.

Hedges pointed to research suggesting multiple benefits of not jacking up the A/C at work.

"It is clear we are wasting a vast amount of energy overcooling buildings, making people miserable, making people fatter and lowering productivity."