Yes, Your Office’s Temperature is a Sign of the Patriarchy

Cold woman in office


Alicia Ostarello
Alicia Ostarello
April 18, 2024 at 7:15AM UTC

“Is it cold in here?” is a question I overhear daily. And real talk: it’s a question I only hear women asking. In fact, just today, I watched a woman in a vest and scarf ask  a woman wearing a blanket draped over her shoulders if it was, indeed, cold in here. Her answer was “Yes.”

And until I saw Cynthia Nixon request a warmer debate hall (and the fallout of her asking for what she wanted), I never thought about why women are always asking each other about cold offices. But, oh. Right. We live in a patriarchy

Which means even modern office environments were designed for men.

Yep. When building planners set out to decide what the ideal temperature for an office should be, they based it on men’s metabolic rates. Reminds me of how clinical trials in medicine have often left out women entirely (and oh mylanta, if you haven’t, go read chapter one of Doing Harm to learn how absurd this is).

And women are left to figure out how to make the best of a chilly situation.

Most of my female coworkers have extra layers at their desks. I keep a sweatshirt, a fuzzy vest, and fingerless gloves in my cubicle. Plus, I’ve started incorporating a nicer jacket into my outfit (because boy, do I feel silly wearing a hooded leather bomber to lead a meeting about renaming a product).

And you know, my discomfort looking silly in my cold-weather gear makes sense, since workplace femininity is policed in all sorts of ways). Think about it: High heels. Spanx. Shaved body bits. Taking up as little space as possible in meetings and in life. Keeping our voices down and at exactly the right register. Not challenging the status quo.

While women’s discomfort is dismissed...

Nevermind that a coworker is wearing a blanket, another one has a Snuggie, and a third has both plus a space heater. In fact, joke about it! She must be over-reacting just like all those women “wrongly” claiming they're in pain. You know, even though it’s well documented that doctors don’t take women’s pain seriously.

And let’s not even consider the fact that women have been taught to be so skeptical of their physical feelings that we ask each other to verify the office is actually cold before we raise a complaint. We must still be overreacting. aren’t asked to deal with discomfort.

This makes sense in the context of our patriarchal society. Our world caters to men. From the weight of the water cooler jug to the size and shape of crash test dummies to the pink tax to the gender pay gap to the motherhood penalty/fatherhood bonus to emotional labor falling under the “other duties” that women routinely juggle in the workplace.

Sure, men might say “But I never asked for that!,” or even “I want to change this!” But as Mia MacKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous puts it:
Men have never been overwhelmingly interested in fighting that fight, because it requires them giving up power, and all evidence suggests that’s not their super-fave thing. Share a link about gender equality? Sure! Count me in! Give up real power in real ways? Nope, not really.

Really, men aren’t expected to problem-solve their warmth the way women have to deal with being cold.

Every time the temperature-debate heats up (sorry, couldn’t resist) in our #general Slack channel, a colleague inevitably brings up the idea that it’s easier to put more clothes on than take them off. Which elicits an eye roll from the ladies in the office.

There are plenty of ways to cool down! You could have a tiny desk fan, don a a cooling undershirt (which could go under your, wait for it, short-sleeved button up!), and you could even wear thin socks. Come on, fellas. 

Oh, and fun fact: the number on the thermostat doesn’t tell you much.

Last year, Vice talked to University of Oregon’s Christopher Minson to confirm this.

Even if the thermostat is set to a mild temperature, like 72 degrees (t-shirt weather outside) the massive amount of air flow that building operators build into their cooling systems make the rooms feel downright arctic (And with no natural sunlight in most offices, we don't pick up any of those toasty electromagnetic rays.)
That means, the numbers on your office thermostat don’t tell you anything about what it feels like to be in the building. You know, kind of like your SAT score.

So, what’s a gal to do?

First, we can speak up at work, and say without hesitation, “I’m cold.” We can ask for something to be done about it, and thoughtfully offer solutions (hello, Comfy). We can acknowledge that temperature is only part of the issue—the real issue is that modern offices are optimized to suit only half the workforce And we can, again and again, ask to be witnessed and heard.

Which brings us back to Cynthia Nixon. She asked for what she wanted, and was verifiably ridiculed for doing so in a way Governor Cuomo would never be.
I don’t think men intentionally think that their thermostat preference is meant to keep women in their place, but what if they showed some allyship by working with women who request a change?

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