Office air-con settings ‘designed for men aged 40’

Researchers found young women working in offices were left feeling cold due to air conditioning systems intended to keep middle'aged male workers comfortable. Picture: Contributed
Researchers found young women working in offices were left feeling cold due to air conditioning systems intended to keep middle'aged male workers comfortable. Picture: Contributed
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SEXUAL discrimination is being practised in offices right across the UK and the world, research suggests.

But the findings do not relate to the way female employees are treated at work or an impenetrable “glass ceiling” but the air conditioned buildings they work in.

Comfort models need to adjust to actual female values

Nature Climate Change report

Indoor climate control systems are partly based on the resting metabolic rate of an average 40-year-old man, say scientists and may overestimate the female rate by up to 35 per cent.

This means women are likely to feel less than comfortable in modern, air conditioned offices.

A study of 16 young women performing light office work showed they were at risk of being over-chilled by air conditioning in summer.

And their metabolic rates, significantly lower than the “standard values” used to set office temperatures, suggested they required less cooling in summer than men.

Study authors Dr Boris Kingma and Professor Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, from Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, wrote in the journal Nature Climate Change: “Thermal comfort models need to adjust the current metabolic standard by including the actual values for females.

“Consequently, thermal comfort models need either to be recalibrated or enhanced using a biophysical approach – This in turn will allow for better predictions of building energy consumption, by reducing the bias on thermal comfort of sub-populations and individuals.”

Current air conditioning standards are derived from research conducted in the 1960s that assessed the “thermal comfort” of 1,300 mainly sedentary students.

It took into account a value for metabolic rate which was based on the resting metabolic rate of one 70 kilogram (11 stone) 40-year-old man.

But a woman’s metabolic rates are typically very different from a man’s, the researchers point out. So much so that the standard model used to set indoor temperatures may overestimate the amount of heat generated by a woman sitting still by up to 35 per cent.

Metabolic rate also lowered with increasing age.

“Thus, current indoor climate standards may intrinsically misrepresent thermal demand of the female and senior sub-populations,” said the scientists.

This in turn was likely to make office heating and cooling systems less energy efficient than they could be, they added. The authors called for a new system that takes into account gender differences, as well as age and physiological characteristics such as being lean or obese.

Dr Joost van Hoof from Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, said: “These findings could be significant for the next round of revisions of thermal comfort standards – which are on a constant cycle of revision and public review – because of the opportunities to improve the comfort of office workers and the potential for reducing energy consumption.

“A large scale re-evaluation in field studies may be needed in order to sufficiently convince real-estate developers, standard committees and building services engineers to revise their practises.”

Last week The Scotsman revealed how the gap in pay between men and women in Scotland is widening despite closing elsewhere in the UK.

Independent think-tank Fiscal Affairs Scotland found there has been a rise in the difference between male and female salaries north of the Border since 2011. Separate research by the Law Society of Scotland found male solicitors earn as much as 42 per cent more than their female counterparts.

In July, the UK government announced it would become mandatory for businesses of more than 250 employees to publish wage data by gender.