Business·Analysis

Men in business attire may be bad for women and the climate: Don Pittis

As anyone who has worked in an open plan office where people cannot control temperatures will know, women seem to complain more about it being too cold. Now, science has confirmed the anecdotal evidence.

Trading in the pinstripes and using less a/c may help female workers be more productive

If businessmen trade in the suit and tie for light clothes and reduce the a/c in the office, it would help climate change and, according to a new study, have the added advantage of making female workers more productive.

Japan has kicked off its annual May through September Cool Biz campaign. As the summer begins to heat up in Canada, it's an initiative that might be worth imitating.

In a government scheme begun more than a decade ago, Japanese office workers — especially men — are encouraged to shed jacket and tie during the hot Japanese summer months in favour of a cooler look.   

"The campaign is aimed at combating global warming," said a report this month in the Japan Times announcing the beginning of the summer dress code. "Office workers are encouraged to wear light clothes while the air conditioning is set at 28 degrees."

Dressing down at work means less energy used for cooling, reducing carbon dioxide output in places that get at least part of their electricity from fossil fuel plants. But recent reports about the effects of chilly offices on women suggest shucking the pinstripes offers a second advantage.

As anyone who has worked in an open plan office where people cannot control temperatures will know, women seem to complain more about it being too cold.

Battle for the thermostat

Now science has confirmed the anecdotal evidence. A study released this month with the title, Battle for the thermostat: Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance, shows that not only do they dislike chilly indoor temperatures, cold settings tend to make women less mentally acute.

As with all sex difference research such conclusions are based on statistical averages. Individual male and female preferences and reactions may not conform to the statistical trend. But the study appears to show the effect is real.

"The fact that women generally prefer higher indoor temperatures than men is well supported by survey evidence," says the study, which sampled 500 university students.

A study released this month by Middlesex University shows that not only do women dislike chilly indoor temperatures, cold settings tend to make them less mentally acute. (Frerieke/Flickr)

But more interestingly, the researchers concluded men's and women's cognitive ability also differed with temperature.

"We find that, for math and verbal tasks, consistent with their subjective temperature preferences, women perform better … at high temperatures than at low temperatures," the researchers determined.

Catherine Dowling, a professor at the Ryerson School of Interior Design and a specialist in office space, says heating ventilation and air conditioning or HVAC as it's called in the business is often badly designed. It is one of the most difficult and expensive parts of office construction.

"There are issues with HVAC," said Dowling, who also works at Paris, Ont.-based Dowling Architects and has designed corporate offices. "They're usually 50 per cent of the budget of a building."

While new ways of balancing and controlling temperatures to suit different needs are constantly being invented, not all the best systems are installed in every building. And once systems have been installed, retrofitting the existing building stock can be prohibitively expensive.

Even at the end of May, the windows at this Harry Rosen menswear shop still have models sealed up in stifling but stylish jacket and tie. (Don Pittis/CBC)

Leading the way to cool

Changing employee density where each employee has a number of heat-producing electronic devices can throw off the original heat load planning, resulting in pockets of heat and cool that are hard to fine-tune. The result is that for some employees to be cool enough, others must be too cool.

"Quite honestly, buildings do feel like they're too hot in the winter and too cold in the summer," Dowling said.

That leads to the "battle of the thermostat" where employees take turns adjusting the heat to the level they prefer. Frustrated building managers have resorted to installing fake thermostats.

As Dowling points out, in her business, men rarely wear jacket and tie. But a stroll through the air-conditioned passages beneath downtown Toronto's banking towers show that for many, the traditional men's business uniform has not disappeared.

Neck wrappings may have been essential in the drafty European buildings where they were invented. Its modern fashion-victim equivalent merely keeps bodily heat in. Yet even at the end of May, the windows at Harry Rosen, the menswear shop for the business elite still have models sealed up in stifling but stylish jacket and tie.

People I spoke with in the tailoring business said that the "casualization" of the workplace has caused a reaction where men buy and wear tailored suits to stand out. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg didn't show up this week in Ottawa, but when he appeared before Congress he did not wear his trademark T-shirt.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not show up in Ottawa this week but when he testified in Washington on April 11, 2018, T-shirt and shorts were nowhere to be seen. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Male politicians, too, often wear the full uniform even in southern states where air conditioning operates even during our winter. In the television studio, it is a standard complaint. Men are overdressed while women in summer fashion shiver. 

And in business offices, while full suit and tie may fade with distance from the executive suite, it is hard to turn the air conditioning to 28 C if it means the bosses are all soaked in sweat.

Maybe now is the chance for the Canadian business elite to lead the way and follow the tech worker trend to T-shirts, shorts and sneakers.

"You know what? That doesn't seem to be a convention, and I think that's a really great idea," said Dowling. "And we would be cooling our building much less, which would be better environmentally."

And if the gender performance study is right, it would have the added advantage of making female workers more productive.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of the story mentioned the university of the editor, but more and better source details are in the external link to the journal article.
    Jun 03, 2019 3:53 PM ET

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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