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How 19 °C hurt an already marginalized group

A contribution from Viktoria Illyés.

Figure 1

© Tom Y. Chang, Agne Kajackaite

1 of 2 images or videos

Figure 1. Results for math and verbal tasks as a function of ambient temperature for men and women, from [1]

Figure 2

© Tom Y. Chang, Agne Kajackaite

1 of 2 images or videos

Figure 2. Number of submitted answers as a function of temperature for men and women.

Women at university did not simply lose the “battle of the thermostat”- the fight was never opened in times of skyrocketing energy prices and an insufficient university budget. Although many studies prove the decrease in women´s performance at low temperatures, the measure of employing 19 °C in offices of public institutions has been taken without looking at the potential discrimination it might have on specific groups. This is yet another slap in the face of women in the seemingly meritocratic system called academia.

The latest study on the topic of gender, temperature and performance is from 2019 [1], and its three main findings are:

  1. Women perform better on math and verbal tasks at higher temperatures, while the opposite is true for men.
  2. The women´s increase in performance is significantly higher than the male´s performance is decreased.The results can be seen in Figure 1. On average, for every temperature increase of 1K, female math scores rise by 1.76%. The examined temperature range of 16.19 to 32.57˚C means an increase of 28.8% in female performance. Men would submit 0.63% fewer correct answers in a one-degree temperature increase, adding up to 10.3% for the considered temperature range.
  3. The increase in performance is largely driven by the number of submitted answers and only marginally by a lower error rate, see Figure 2.

This fact suggests that thermal comfort does play an important role for performance. When feeling uncomfortable, women just try less. Women feel the cold more than men for several reasons, as we know from studies in the 90s. With this energy-saving measure, management makes women try less.

The allowed temperature is regulated in the Arbeitsstättenverordnung (AStV) [2]. For the cold season and office work (sitting, with little physical activity), a temperature range of 19-25 °C is required (§ 28 Abs 1). 19 °C is an absolute minimum temperature, meaning that at any time, even in the morning after a weekend, this minimum temperature must be ensured.

The issue of low temperatures has also been acknowledged by the works council (“Betriebsrat”) of Universität Wien. They state: “Due to their physiology, women will be the main victims of the "heating saving measure". If the temperature at the workplace is too low, they complain about shivering, goose bumps (which already are a reaction of the body to an imbalance in temperature sensation) and cold hands or feet. Typing with gloves on the keyboard of the PC is a problem!”, [3, translated from German by the author].

The tasks of the shown study [1] were executed in one hour. From a scientific standpoint, it is unknown how women and men perform when spending longer periods at certain ambient temperatures.

What happens in eight or more hours of cold exposure?

And when will decision-makers introduce work conditions that do not discriminate women?

[1] Chang TY, Kajackaite A (2019) Battle for the thermostat: Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216362., opens an external URL in a new window.

[2], opens an external URL in a new window

[3], opens an external URL in a new window