Deep in the recesses of The Globe and Mail, my female boss and the letters editor are huddling together for warmth. One wears a sweater. One wears a big wool shawl. They clutch their coffee mugs for warmth. For backup, they have space heaters. It's a sizzling day in August, but they are freezing.
"It's so cold in here," my editor whimpered. Her fingertips were white. The nearby men looked fine.
In offices across the land, the air-conditioning battle of the sexes heats up every summer. Women are convinced that the office thermostat is set by men, for men. Men say it's our fault, for dressing in sleeveless tops and breezy skirts and sandals. Women say male dress standards should change to fit the season. Across the hall, in the executive suite, the dress code is always the same: buttoned-up shirt, jacket, tie, socks and close-toed shoes. No wonder they're so sweaty.
"Air conditioning is another big, sexist plot," concluded the Washington Post's Petula Dvorak, after interviewing some of the city's frigid females.
There may be something to that. According to a new scientific study, indoor thermostat settings were originally calculated for the thermal comfort level of a 1960s-era standard male. Men burn energy faster, which is why they like to keep things cool. "This may cause buildings to be intrinsically non-energy-efficient in providing comfort to females," the study's authors observed. Higher office temperatures are also said to improve worker productivity. On top of that, offices that are cooled to refrigerator-temperature are notoriously bad for the planet.
A New York Times investigation into the air conditioning gender divide has sparked a searing debate among readers. "It's the men who are discriminated against, as we are required to wear heavy shirts, shoes and socks and long pants," one man complained. "Put some ties and oxford button downs on these women, as well as some socks and shoes, and they won't be cold, I assure you." Women struck back by pointing out that even in workplaces where they are dressed identically to men, they still shiver. And some people took it to the next level, arguing that when it comes to sexist workplace norms, freezing offices are just the tip of the iceberg.
"On a larger level, these male-centric office norms are constant reminders to women that they are still outsiders in the workplace," wrote Bryce Covert on the New Republic website.
"Most men aren't even aware of how enviable it is to know exactly what to wear to work without risk of objectification, embarrassment, and, of course, hypothermia."
The debate does not end there. What about menopausal women? Hormonal flashes can strike at any time, leaving them flushed and dripping. Don't they deserve thermostatic justice too? Not to mention the guys who suffer from low metabolism, like us.
Frances Woolley, a (female) economist who blogs at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, has a different take. In a typical office tower, she notes, the warmest offices have large windows, face south, and are occupied by big shots (mainly men). The interior and north-facing offices, which get little to no natural light, are typically occupied by administrative staff (mainly women). "Perhaps women's offices actually are colder than men's," she speculates. Or perhaps underlings' offices are colder. This may explain why 68 per cent of respondents to a (completely unscientific) Washington Post poll thought their workplace temperature was too cold.
Personally, I like it cold. Crank up the heat and I just wilt. My husband is the other way around. If the temperature drops below 23C his teeth chatter. I refused to marry him unless he got air conditioning, which is now a constant source of friction. It is an iron law of cohabitation that opposites attract, and that you will spend the rest of your lives arguing whether the windows should be open or shut, and sneakily twiddling with the thermostat. No matter what the temperature is, it's always too hot or cold for somebody.
Meanwhile, maybe we should let the underlings in the office set the temperature. Think of it as one small step for climate justice.