It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of an office job must be in want of a sweater in the summer. That’s when the air conditioning is often cranked up in offices, freezing many women out. As one comedy site, which dubbed the season “women’s winter,” explained, “when spring turns to summer and there’s blossom on the trees, the office air doth turn to ice and all the women freeze.”
As it turns out, corporate climactic conditions are designed to ensure the comfort of a person who is male, 40 years old and 154 pounds. It assumes that a person’s metabolic rate generates 60 to 70 watts of resting heat per square meter. But that overestimates the heat women generate by as much as 35 percent. The optimal temperature for the average woman, research suggests, is several degrees higher.
Now there’s evidence that women have had good reason all along to complain about arctic office air. A new study indicates that, when the temperature plummets, we really do suffer. Researchers found that women perform better on math and verbal tasks in higher temperatures, while men perform more poorly. But many corporate offices automatically respond to the arrival of the summer months by turning the air conditioning up. There’s an inherent unfairness: The study also found that the negative effects of lowering the indoor temperature are much greater on women than what men experience when it is increased.
Of course, when corporate offices turn up the AC, they’re also helping to heat up the planet. Air conditioning contributes directly to global warming both because the power plants that create the electricity to run it release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and because the units themselves release hot air outside.
There’s a solution to this conundrum: Instead of making women bundle up, men - who, in corporate settings, are still often limited to wool suits - could be allowed to wear lighter clothes. Companies could set the temperature a bit higher and institute a more relaxed dress code for the summer - outside of meetings that require more businesslike attire, of course. Men could wear short-sleeve Oxford shirts instead of jackets; women can feel less of a need to bundle up in heavy cardigans or use space heaters under their desks. That could make offices more comfortable - and, not least of all, more productive - for us all, since the study suggests that we’re less effective when our environment is unpleasant.
The United Nations instituted this policy in their New York offices during my time there. Women aren’t the only ones whose morale could be improved by this approach: By making the work environment more comfortable, it made it more pleasant for all of my colleagues, of all genders, to come to work on hot summer days.
This year, instead of turning summer into women’s winter, companies should consider higher indoor temperatures and more relaxed dress codes that could make corporate life a lot sunnier for all of us while reducing their organizations’ environmental impact.