Once I settled into my first office job, I realized I was going to need two things to do my job well: a blanket and a space heater. The office was freezing. In fact, most offices are colder than what I would call comfortable. Thankfully, since that first job, I haven't had to bring my own heavy-duty heating supplies to work. However, nearly every woman I know makes sure to have a sweater on hand at the office — even on 90-degree days.
And now we know why.
Researchers Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt argue in their study published in the journal Nature Climate Change that indoor climates such as offices and residential buildings are based on the needs of men, not women, as Lloyd Alter explained when he looked into why our offices feel like walk-in coolers.
Not only does this lead to a large percentage of the workforce feeling like they are battling hypothermia, it also means a less energy-efficient workplace. The study suggests that by adjusting the temperature to factor in the female body's metabolic rate, we can make women more comfortable and save energy.
"In a lot of buildings, you see energy consumption is a lot higher because the standard is calibrated for men's body heat production," explained Kingma to the New York Times. "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."
Based on an old model
The original formula for indoor climate regulation standards was created in the 1960s. One key number in that thermal comfort model is the metabolic rate of a human. Who is the base model used to represent all human needs? A 40-year-old man who weighs 154 pounds.
In the 1960s, this model might have made more sense. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1967 there were only 14.8 million full-time females in the workplace compared to 36.6 million men. By 2009, the number of full-time female workers had increased to 43.2 million, making up a huge percentage of the workforce.
As women tend to be smaller than men and have a higher percentage of body fat, they have lower metabolic rates. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, men have a metabolic rate that is about 23% higher than women's. Older people also tend to have lower metabolic rates. The study authors believe that in order to make work environments comfortable for both men and women, the formula should be adjusted to factor in the needs of both sexes and all ages.
Metabolic rates weren't the only factor the authors acknowledged when it comes to men and women's preferences for temperature. They note that in some professions, many men wear suits that require a shirt, jacket and long pants, while many women favor lighter clothes including sleeveless tops or dresses and skirts. How much clothing one wears also contributes to the problem.
Kingma and van Marken Lichtenbelt conclude that by changing the formula, and therefore saving countless women from shivering at their desks, we could remove the bias against women that currently exists. And, as an added bonus, raising the temperature by a few degrees would help reduce the energy consumption of office buildings. A win for women and for the planet.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in August 2015.