Wednesday, August 5, 2015
The New York Times reported a recent study indicating why many women are consistently chilly in the workplace. The study reveals that the temperatures of office buildings may have a disparate gender impact. The scientists assert that most office buildings adjust temperature according to a formula that is based in part on the resting metabolic rate of men – a 40 year old, 154 pound man to be exact. This formula, which also considers factors such as air temperature and clothing insulation, was concocted in the 1960’s when men made up a majority of the employees in many workplaces. Now that women constitute half of the modern workforce, the current model “‘may overestimate resting heat production of women by up to 35 percent.’”
In other words, office air conditioning is biased against women. But that's not all. There's reason to believe that that bias is actually not in the best interests of employers since cooler temperatures impair productivity. A 2004 Cornell University study found that office workers make more typing errors in chilly office environments as opposed to warmer ones.
And then there's the social consequences since over-chilled workspaces cause a wasteful exertion of energy amid the backdrop of global warming.
In short, the “gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort” has three implications: 1) offices are expending more energy than necessary; 2) employers are losing productivity; and 3) women have a disproportionately uncomfortable experience in the workplace. Sounds like a lose-lose-lose proposition, which should result in bosses turning up the heat.
The study has already incited a tense gendered debate on office air conditioning. Dr. van Hoof, who wrote a commentary about the study, noted that “‘The cleavage is closer to the core of the body, so the temperature difference between the air temperature and the body temperature there is higher when it’s cold.’” Dr. van Hoof seems to assume that women begin shedding clothes in a professional setting, just because of the temperature outside. The female employees highlighted in the article, however, as well as female commentators on the site suggest otherwise. Based on their testimonials, it appears that most women account for the aggressively low temperatures with sweaters and blankets (if their work environment allows for it!). One commented, “We all have space heaters at our desks. So now my organization is paying to simultaneously heat and cool the building. Such a waste!”
But is this actionable under Title VII, most likely as a disparate impact claim? The one case that we discovered dealing with the problem involved a woman who alleged that her supervisor retaliated against her filing a discrimination suit by installing a lockbox on the office thermostat while maintaining a temperature of 66-70 degrees. The court was not persuaded that it should make a federal case about office temperatures.
I guess we'll have to wait to see what might happen, but bosses might be wise not to tell their female workers to "chill out" on the issue.
Hat-tip to my RA, Samira Paydar, who also came up with the title of this post.