Frigid Offices Might Be Killing Women’s Productivity
As their goosebumps have long suggested, women perform better on tests of cognitive function at toastier room temperatures.
If “I told you so” had a sensation, it would be the sweet cocoon of an 80-degree workspace. For years, women have been saying that the AC is on too damn high. We’ve dragged not one but two sweaters to the office in the summer: one for our slowly numbing legs, and one for our shivering shoulders. Scientific studies have already shown that offices are set for men’s frostier preferred temperatures.
Now a new paper confirms what many of us have long suspected. Women don’t just prefer warmer office temperatures. They perform better in them, too.
For the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, the researchers Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite had 543 college students in Berlin take different types of tests in a room set to various temperatures between 61 and 91 degrees Fahrenheit. First, the participants had to answer logic problems, like the one about a bat costing $1 more than a ball. Then, the students were asked to add up two-digit numbers without a calculator. Finally, they had to form German words out of the letter scramble ADEHINRSTU.
When the room was warmer, women answered more questions on the math and verbal tests, and got more questions right. A 1-degree Celsius increase in the room’s temperature was associated with a nearly 2 percent increase in the number of math questions the women correctly answered, and a 1 percent increase in their performance on the verbal task. The men, meanwhile, did better at cooler temperatures, but their decrease in performance at warmer temperatures was not as great as women’s gains. (For the logic problems, the temperature didn’t seem to make a difference.)
“The magnitude of the effect was really surprising, especially for the math task,” Chang, a business professor at the University of Southern California, told me via email. A 1-degree difference in room temperature boosted math scores by nearly 2 percent. For reference, that’s about half the gap in performance between American high-school boys and girls on the math portion of the SAT, which is about 4 percent.
Chang cautioned that more studies need to be conducted before anyone attempts to eliminate gender-based performance differences on standardized tests by tweaking the thermostat. But in the paper, he and Kajackaite write, “Our results suggest that in gender-balanced workplaces, temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards.”
For employers, these findings mean that by insisting on the subzero fridges you call cubicles, not only are you making half your employees miserable, you are also sacrificing productivity. For some women, this study finally provides an explanation for why the creative juices flow so freely at tropical indoor temperatures. And unfortunately, it also means you should hang on to that summer sweater collection. (Or at the very least, as my colleague Sarah Zhang suggested, get a foot warmer. ) It’ll tide you over until the day thermostat justice finally arrives.