Updated 4th September 2018: The sexist air conditioning debate is still simmering on more than three years since hitting fever pitch. The current Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, is famous for preferring icy temperatures. However, his challenger, former Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon, is keen to avoid debating in a cold room and has asked that organisers turn the heating to 24C ahead of their public appearance on Wednesday evening. One of her team members claimed that working conditions are "notoriously sexist when it comes to room temperature". The organisers of the event have yet to reply to Ms. Nixon's request.
This article was originally published on 4th August 2015.
The Washington Post published an article in 2015 that claims office air-conditioning practices are sexist. It was a lighthearted exaggeration, to be sure. But it's also a special brand of bullshit I couldn't resist.
Setting: 225 Broadway, the 23rd floor, Manhattan. A midsummer Monday afternoon. The air conditioning at Refinery29 headquarters — a company that employs 80% women — failed to restart after the weekend.
By noon, layers have been shed. Styled tresses have been put up into topknots and messy buns. The more ambitious among us (read: beauty editors) have found intricate braiding solutions and a way to hide the melting of our faces. We have all spread out as not to absorb even the most remote amount of body heat from one another. The only thing circulating are rumours of cooler spots in the office. In a word, we are shvitzing — and quite cranky.
On any given day, R29 offices are brisk. So brisk, in fact, that many of us keep a sweater or some kind of jacket draped on our desk chairs. My weapon of choice is a red fleece blanket I got in a holiday promotional bag last year. It's often draped over my legs, confirming my worst belief that I am, in fact, a grandma trapped in a youngster's body.
According to the WaPo article, these office air conditioning habits are sexist. Women dress in seasonal clothing like sleeveless tops and not-pants, but the AC is set to accommodate the male wardrobe, often a suit and often not shorts. "Heaven forbid they make any adjustments in what they wear," WaPo's Petula Dvorak writes. "That's right, my friends. Air conditioning is another big, sexist plot." There's even a nice stock image of a woman wearing a winter jacket and hat, sipping a cup of hot beverage, shivering over her laptop.
The too-cold office is a real thing, to be sure, but shouting "sexism!" at a situation where it's unwarranted creates a crying-wolf situation. If you assign sexual discrimination to something like AC, actual arguments about real gender inequality become defanged. When you equate air-conditioning temperatures with something like the glass ceiling, it creates a domino effect that won't do women any favours.
Dvorak argues that "frozen workers make more errors and are less productive." She cites an expert source who notes there are fewer typos when temperatures are higher.
On that Monday, we were all miserable. We were so distracted that all we could do was look at one another and complain — never mind being as creative as we normally are. We were looking at a problem much larger than typos.
The excessive AC can be inconvenient for the ill-prepared. And there are days where we look at one another, echo the sentiments of the women in Dvorak's story, and say, "I'm fuh-reezing!" But we are happier under our fleece blankets and oversized sweaters than when we are like lying around like iguanas on a rock.
Full-blast air conditioning is not to accommodate men. It is to create a workspace that allows us to also have the wherewithal to get up from our chairs with all of our skin intact. And, as an added bonus, it makes us grateful when we finally step out into the sun.