Each of us has our own temperature range at which we feel comfortable. It’s long been known that, on average, women prefer warmer environments than men. Now we’ve learned this affects productivity, making air-conditioning one more obstacle to workplace equality.
Dr Tom Chang of the University of Southern California tested 543 university students with three types of challenges at a range of temperatures between 16ºC and 33ºC (61ºF-91ºF). For maths and verbal tests women’s scores rose with the thermometer, while men’s fell, Chang reports in PLOS ONE.
Most of the improvement at people’s preferred temperatures came from working faster, and therefore answering more of the questions, rather than being more accurate. Chang and co-author Dr Agne Kajackaite of the Technical University of Berlin interpret this as people showing greater motivation, but it’s also possible our brains just work faster in optimized environments.
Unlike Terry Pratchett’s trolls (whose silicon-based brains don't cope well with heat) men don’t need it to be near freezing to do well, small changes within the normal range affect performance. Meanwhile, the graph of women’s productivity with temperature is much steeper, as well as sloping the other way.
Intriguingly, results on the third test, where students were given three questions with counter-intuitive answers, were not significantly affected by temperature.
"It's been documented that women like warmer indoor temperatures than men – but the idea until now has been that it's a matter of personal preference," Chang said in a statement. "What we found is it's not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter – in math and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try – is affected by temperature."
With most office thermostats set to temperatures preferred by men who are more likely to be vocal about it, it's possible current environments create a bias, hindering women’s ability to work well, and therefore win promotions.
It’s important to note the results Chang reports are averages. If you’re a woman who likes the cold, or a man who prefers it warm, you’re unusual, but hardly unique. Moreover, students from a single Berlin university may not be entirely representative of humanity as a whole.
Finding the ideal office temperature may not be easy. At least if it is too cold for many people in a shared space those who are suffering can put on extra clothes. Warmer temperatures may suit more people, particularly in offices with female majorities, but there is less the minority who’d like it cooler can do.
Nevertheless, Chang and Kajackaite suggest most offices would benefit from turning the dial up. “Even if you care only about money, or the performance of your workers, you may want to crank up the temperature in your office buildings," Chang said. The findings also challenge those who claim women naturally lack capacity at maths.