Is the air conditioning sexist?

air conditioning
Amanda Woodard


written on February 10, 2017

As the East coast of Australia goes through another heat wave it’s time to address office air conditioning management.

I think we can all agree it’s way too hot. And if you work outside, then it’s more probable that you are a man doing a job that involves hard labour, and you have my heartfelt sympathy.

But for those of us indoors, and here my point is particularly addressed to women office workers, I have some bad news. The air conditioning is sexist.

In 2015 research from the Netherlands made headlines, it showed air conditioning was biased in favour of men. It is nearly always set for male comfort rather than for women, who tend to prefer a warmer environment (about 25 degrees C, three degrees warmer than men).

Take this story from the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, about a woman who used to get so cold at work that she had to go to the bathroom several times a day to immerse her fingers in warm water so that she could keep typing. Every time she turned up the thermostat, her boss would turn it back down.

“Our offices were controlled by the same thermostat, and he was always hot while I was always cold,” she recalls. “We literally argued about it every single day.”

So what is the science behind men and women’s tolerance of temperature?

For a start, men typically have more heat generating muscle than women and so feel comfortable at cooler temperatures. Women typically have more body fat than men and though the fat helps to retain heat, it isn’t so effective at generating heat, unlike muscle.

Meanwhile current air conditioning standards are derived from research conducted in the 1960s based on the resting metabolic rate of one 11 stone, 40-year-old man.

Dr Boris Kingma, lead researcher from the Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper: “The main message is that in the current standards the value for the heat load of a building is based on an average male. This overestimates the metabolic rate of women on average by 20 to 30 per cent.

“We do not recommend a specific range of room temperatures, instead we point out how metabolic rate differs between males and females, and how important it could be to take this into account when defining indoor climate standards.”

The researchers also noted how metabolic rate lowers with increasing age which means that an older workforce is likely to need higher office temperatures.

There are other variations to consider, too, such as how pregnancy and hormonal contraceptives will increase women’s core temperatures by about 0.5°C to 1.0°C – and how women going through the menopause will commonly experience ‘hot flushes’.

What does HR need to be aware of?

Complaints about air-conditioning and heating in offices (and other workplaces) are very common – it is too hot or too cold; the temperature varies drastically through the day; the draughts are terrible; etc. It’s not only the temperature that affects how people feel, but also the humidity levels and air movement. Workplace temperatures that are too high or too low can affect fatigue, heat illness and cold-related medical conditions.

There are no regulations specifying standards for minimum temperatures, humidity or air-flow in the workplace, however, both the employer and HR (whose role it is to oversee workplace health and safety), have a duty of care under the Work Health and Safety Act, 2011 to provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health – and therefore should be doing something about unsatisfactory air-conditioning or heating.

The employer also has the duty to monitor conditions at the workplace – this includes temperature.

Generally, the temperature in offices should vary according to the outside temperature, and should be changed month by month. Mostly, it should range from about 21 to 26 degrees, with an airflow rate of 0.1 metres per second. The humidity level is best between 60 and 40 per cent. Adjustments should then be made from that point, checking that the air conditioning reaches all areas in the office, and that windows receiving substantial quantities of sunlight are not causing problems.

Heat hazardous workplaces

Working in hot and/or humid environments can be particularly uncomfortable, but more worrying are the risks of heat-related illness, which can be fatal.

A heat related illness can result from these contributing factors:

  • wearing high levels of personal protective equipment
  • heat from extremely hot or molten material (e.g. foundries, steel mills, bakeries, smelters, glass factories, and furnaces)
  • sunshine (e.g. outdoor work such as construction, road repair, open-pit mining and agriculture)
  • high humidity (e.g. laundries, restaurant kitchens, and canneries)
  • internal body heat (e.g. from heavy manual work).

Step by step guide to preventing heat-related illness

The first step for an HR officer is to identify the sources of heat and cold by looking at the work environment, and the work processes and practices.

The model Code of Practice: Managing the Work Environment and Facilities offers guidance on the risks and how they can be controlled.

In times of really hot weather it states that the pace of work should be slowed if possible, cool drinking water should be supplied, a cool, well-ventilated place where workers can take rest breaks should be provided, and suitable clothing should be worn. For outdoor workers, this would ideally include the use of block-out, hats, UV-glasses, long sleeves and long pants.

While all this seems like common sense, enforcing it is often a problem. Therefore, workers need to be trained to recognise troubling symptoms  caused by extreme temperatures, and environmental conditions should be monitored. Immediate assistance should be provided to workers experiencing symptoms of heat strain or hypothermia.

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11 thoughts on “Is the air conditioning sexist?

  1. If it’s too cold, you can always put more clothes on. If it’s too hot, do you you have anything left to take off? Turning up the heat is not smart and will also cause problems for women battling with hot flushes.

  2. I am concerned that in an article discussing workplace heat in Australia, that an outdated OHS Act has been listed as a legislative base. It distracts from the other content.

  3. Mmm, vapid and verging on twaddle as there are more important issues out there … such focus undermines HR’s business cred. Quasi-sensational it is worthy of a tabloid, however they’d have been succinct as this story is lost in a thicket of words. Had been thinking of delisting from AHRI’s vacuous news and this tips me there.

  4. Thanks Joe and John – I’m sure you have always been very comfortable in the office and I’m disappointed you don’t think this is an important issue for others. I want to tell you that the cold temperatures in office buildings is a constant problem not just for me but for many of my colleagues. It is also an energy problem during hot weather and contributes to increased illness in the workplace (going from cold to hot to cold is a stressor). And there is only so much extra clothing one can wear – changing from a summer dress into a warm pants suit is not practical.

    But I’m not asking you to change your habits for my sake (drink more water, get a fan, take off your jacket and tie) – I think the answer lies in location specific and variable temperature regulation, that can be adjusted to the comfort of the people working there. We could have cool areas and warm areas, and move in and out of them much like activity based working environments. It can’t be that hard.

    1. Kathryn, I don’t wear a jacket or a tie. I find existing temperatures too hot for that style of attire. My point is you can get warmer by donning extra clothes. You can’t get cooler if there’s nothing left to decently remove.

      Having worked predominantly in workplaces where men are in a very small minority, I think this article is unhelpful. Many women have issues in warm rooms. I’ve been to plenty of meetings where women have sat there furiously fanning themselves and popping up and down to turn air conditioning units on and off.

      It surprises me, having read this article, that the educated, articulate women who’ve been the majority of decision makers in the sites where I’ve worked have never put temperature on a single agenda.

      I run my counselling office at 21 degrees and always give clients the option of changing it. The only complaint I’ve had was from a man wearing a jacket in the middle of summer. The women who set the temperature in our shared work office set it at 22 degrees, by the way.

      The solution, as you suggest, is location specific and variable temperature regulation. There often needs to be more airflow. If you were successful in pumping up the heat to 25 degrees, there’d be a lot more of that in the form of portable fans, I’d expect.

    2. Thank you Kathryn.

      This has been an issue raised regularly at the past 2 workplaces that I’ve been at and, in spite of the standard “you can put more layers on” quip that is always used as the response by the male colleagues, the problem, as you’ve correctly indicated, is that constant movement from hot to cold to hot to cold is a physical stressor that leads to increased illness in staff.

      The standard that I was told when I first began working in an office environment (many years ago) was 22-23 degrees, but in most places I have worked it’s normally set on 21 which may seem insignificant, but because of the way offices are designed, this normally ends with the open areas being the higher temperature, but the offices being much lower, so if you’re in an office, like I am, expect it to be closer to 18. This means that even going from your office to the kitchen the temperature variance can be 4 or 5 (yes, I have a sensor and have tracked this data in the past).

      So, sure thing, tell your staff to just wear more layers and add/remove them as they move between the 18-20 degree office environment (which the men proclaim as being a comfortable anytime anyone even infers that it’s cold) and the high 30s to 40 degree external temperatures in warehouses or similar, or just in leaving the building for breaks/lunch, but be prepared for the higher rate of illness that you will see as a result, eg we currently have more than 70% of our staff either at work sick (coughing and sneezing and not working at full capacity), or off work sick, and the 18 vs 40 degree scenario is our normal variance.

  5. This issue also relates to acceptable standards of clothing worn by different genders. Men are expected to wear long sleeve shirts and trousers which can be warm on hotter days. Women are permitted to wear lighter clothing (singlet tops and skirts with sockless shoes. We seem to have this dress sense the wrong way around. If men could wear shorts, short sleeved shirts and sandals to work the temperature could be raised a degree or two. Until we get around the clothing issue, this will stay a problem for the future.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with you Peter. Before I retired, I preferred to wear short sleeved shirts, shorts and sandals, but this was frowned upon by senior management, which included many women. A friend of mine (female) says that men wearing shorts and sandals to work is unprofessional, yet she wears dresses, skirts and dressy thongs in summer. There is a double standard here. You should be allowed to wear clothing that’s appropriate for the conditions.

  6. I forget to add…..

    You should be allowed to wear clothing that’s appropriate for the conditions…….regardless of your sex.

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