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New Study Says Chilly Offices Hurt Women Workers' Productivity, Health

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now let's settle a historic debate over why it always seems to be the women in the office who are cold and want that air conditioning turned off. There is now science to explain why women feel colder. A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change says it comes down to differences in the metabolic rates between men and women.

ALAN HEDGE: But there are other biological differences as well.

GREENE: Alan Hedge is an ergonomics professor at Cornell University. He's been studying this issue since the 1970s.

HEDGE: Men have more muscle mass. Muscles contribute to heat generation. Men have hairier skin than women. And hair traps air over the skin and air acts as an insulator. So biologically they generate more heat.

GREENE: Hedge also sees a certain pattern in the workplace.

HEDGE: The temperature gets set usually by a man because often that man will be the CEO or the facility manager or the mechanical engineer responsible for maintaining the system.

GREENE: And in turn...

HEDGE: That leads to the women in the office having to take extra clothing in, cardigans, gloves, ponchos, blankets, space heaters, whatever.

GREENE: The new study says it is time for buildings to, quote, "reduce gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort." Women might prefer 75 degrees while men are often comfortable at 70 degrees. But Hedge says, for women, it's about more than just being cold.

HEDGE: Putting women into a colder environment leads to an adaptation and that is that the body starts to deposit more fat. So being cold in the workplace also tends to lead to weight gain.

GREENE: And if that is not reason enough to turn the thermostat up...

HEDGE: Productivity goes down when people feel cold in the workplace because they're distracted by that.

GREENE: And then there's the economic argument.

HEDGE: About a third of all the energy that the U.S. uses is used by buildings. And about a third, maybe 40 percent, of that is used by air conditioning systems in those buildings.

GREENE: Bottom line - cold air is expensive. All that energy usage also comes at an environmental cost. And Hedge says that minor adjustments in the way we use air conditioning could reduce carbon emissions greatly.

HEDGE: Just simply not wearing a tie, opening your shirt collar, you'll get comparable thermal comfort in an environment that is two degrees warmer. So simple changes can lead to significant energy savings.

GREENE: OK, so the basic message here seems to be the women are right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT N COLD")

RICK PERRY: (Singing) 'Cause you're hot then you're cold. You're yes then you're no. You're in then you're out. You're up then you're down. You're wrong when it's right. It's black and it's white. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.