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Cold, male-friendly offices may be taking a toll on women’s productivity

The heated debate over office thermostats just got some chilling new results.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next

That office chill isn't all in your head. Image Credit: AntonioGuillem, iStock

A lot has changed for the better since women entered the workforce. But one needn’t look further than an office thermostat to realize we still live in a world designed for men.

It’s been years since the so-called “battle for the thermostat” was first waged, but even today, the war rages on. Studies have found that offices often set their thermostats according to the cooler preferences of men, who generate more body heat because of their higher metabolic rates, leaving women perpetually in want of shawls and sweaters.

Now, new research suggests that frigid workplaces aren’t just culling comfort for women: It could be taking a chilling toll on their productivity, too. According to a study published yesterday in the journal PLOS ONE, women tend to perform worse on cognitive tests as temperatures decline, while men’s mental acumen appears to sharpen ever so slightly in the absence of heat.

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The findings still need to be confirmed under a wider range of conditions, and shouldn’t be assumed to predict performance on an individual basis. Coupled with previous evidence, however, they help build the case for rethinking some verifiably outdated workplace practices—many of which are obsolete holdovers from the mid-20th century.

In the study, researchers Agne Kajackaite of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Tom Chang of the University of Southern California recruited 543 college students and sorted them into rooms with temperatures ranging from 61 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Study participants then had an hour to exercise their math, verbal, and logic skills.

Regardless of temperature, the group’s scores were similar across the board—until they were split by gender. For every one-degree-Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) uptick in temperature, women did about 2 percent better on math questions and about 1 percent better on verbal tests. Men, on the other hand, seemed a little less sensitive to temperature, but experienced the opposite effect, losing about 0.6 percent accuracy in both categories with each single degree increase. (No gender differences were found in tests of logic.)

Those figures sound paltry, but they add up fast. “When the temperature was below 70 Fahrenheit, females solved, on average, 8.31 math tasks correctly,” Kajackaite told Veronique Greenwood at The New York Times. “And when the temperature was above 80 Fahrenheit, females solved 10.56 tasks.”

In other words, that 10-degree difference boosted the performance of women by 27 percent.

The researchers also noted differences between genders that seemed to shift with temperature. At the coldest end of the scale, it looked like women were doing worse than men at math. But as temperatures rose, this gender gap evaporated. And in the verbal sphere, women working in warmer conditions outdid their male counterparts.

It’s not yet clear exactly why these differences exist, but past studies have provided a few hints. Because their metabolism is, on average, a bit less efficient, women tend to feel a bit colder than men at the same temperature, Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, a physiologist at Maastricht University who was not involved in the study, told Kat Eschner at Popular Science.

Perhaps for this reason, previous work has found that women prefer rooms heated to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, while men do just fine at 71 degrees—a temperature much closer to that of a typical office (though, importantly, neither this study nor others have found an “ideal” temperature for productivity in any gender). Stretched out over long periods, physical discomfort could start to chip away at work ethic and morale.

The study’s findings, however, aren’t enough on their own to prompt a nationwide overhaul of office thermostats. The population studied was demographically limited, and the researchers split the participants only by traditional definitions of “male” and “female.” Future research will ideally address tests over a longer timescale, and recruit people from more diverse backgrounds, Kajackaite told Jamie Ducharme at TIME.

What’s clear is this: Individual variation is bound to exist—across genders, ages, and more, and the ideal office conditions for one person may feel completely intolerable to the next. For the sake of comfort, productivity, and the broader implications of inclusivity these differences should “[be taken] seriously,” Kajackaite said.

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