Glovatskiy/Shutterstock.com

It’s not just A/C: Despite women having made huge gains in the labor force, office infrastructure hasn’t caught up.

On Monday, the Internet went wild over a new study about ice-cold office temperatures. After all, what desk jockey can’t relate to the sensation of shivering indoors when it’s a solid 40 degrees hotter outside?

The study, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, reported that the ideal workplace temperatures—which hover between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit—were calculated in the 1960s based on the model of a 40-year-old, 154-pound man. What the authors found is that the formula doesn’t account for metabolic differences that impact the way women experience temperatures.

The chatter quickly turned to a battle-of-the-sexes theme. A building physicist quoted in The New York Times pulled the cleavage card, and wondered if plunging necklines are to blame for women shivering in cardigans. (“The cleavage is closer to the core of the body,” he said. “I wouldn’t overestimate the effect of cleavage, but it’s there.”) The New Yorker issued a chronicle of “the sexist history of room temperature.” But when it comes to sexist office infrastructure, A/C is only part of this story.

Women’s participation in the workforce has steadily increased since the era when refrigerated air was standardized in office buildings. Female employees made up 47 percent of the workforce in 2012, up from 38 percent in 1970, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2013, 57.2 percent of working-age women and 69.7 percent of working-age men were in the labor force. But office buildings haven’t necessarily caught up with the times.

If our A/C standard is set by this stereotypical idea of a male businessman from the 1960s, what other vestiges of former workplace infrastructure are still hanging around?

Lack of places to breastfeed

A 2010 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to offer breastfeeding mothers ample break time to pump. Under this law, lactating moms must be able to retreat to “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.” Lactation rooms don’t have to be permanent (for instance, pod designs are feasible), and necessarily have to be cushy—but imagine trying to find a spot to hook up a breast pump in a closet, or cramming expelled milk into a communal fridge. The Office on Women’s Health launched the Breastfeeding at Work Project to connect employers with resources.

Too few bathrooms

Twenty years ago, Linda Lim, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, had trouble finding a women’s bathroom in her 1950s-era office building. “We had to walk a long way,” she says. Lim notes that the disparity between men’s and women’s bathrooms made sense for buildings constructed on academic campuses during the 1950s, when there were fewer female professors and students, but is outdated now that female students outnumber male ones.

Lim’s new office, in a building constructed in 2008, better reflects her current workplace demographics. Each wing of a given floor has four bathrooms: two women’s, one men’s, and one unisex.

Non-ergonomic work stations

Female workers are more likely than men to sustain work-related carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. Women represent nearly two-thirds of all reported CTS cases, the BLS reports.

So how can women prevent aggravating the nerves that flare up in CTS? Avoid flexing at the wrists. Maintain straight posture. Slumping or slouching can roll the shoulders forward and compress nerves from the shoulders and neck. Invest in an ergonomic setup.

Oh, and, unfortunately, the Mayo Clinic suggests that there’s a correlation between cold environments and hand stiffness and pain. Maybe you do need to turn down the A/C, after all.

Top image: Glovatskiy/Shutterstock.com.

About the Author

Jessica Leigh Hester
Jessica Leigh Hester

Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab.

Most Popular

  1. Homeless individuals inside a shelter in Vienna in 2010
    Equity

    How Vienna Solved Homelessness

    What lessons could Seattle draw from their success?

  2. Life

    Why a City Block Can Be One of the Loneliest Places on Earth

    Feelings of isolation are common in cities. Let’s take a look at how the built environment plays into that.

  3. Two New York City subway cars derailed on the A line in Harlem Tuesday, another reminder of the MTA's many problems.
    Transportation

    Overcrowding Is Not the New York Subway's Problem

    Yes, the trains are packed. But don’t blame the victims of the city’s transit meltdown.

  4. Postcards showing the Woodner when it used to be a luxury apartment-hotel in the '50s and '60s, from the collection of John DeFerrari
    Equity

    The Neighborhood Inside a Building

    D.C.’s massive Woodner apartment building has lived many lives—from fancy hotel to one of the last bastions of affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood. Now, it’s on the brink of another change.

  5. Equity

    The Hoarding of the American Dream

    A new book examines how the upper-middle class has enriched itself and harmed economic mobility.