In July 2015, a young female journalist called Radhika Sanghani wrote an article about air conditioning for The Telegraph. That sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? After all, air con is a banal and often vexatious fact of life for almost anyone who works in a modern office.
The subject matter of Sanghani’s article was research which confirmed what many women had long suspected: when it comes to the workplace temperature wars, which so often see women shivering at their desks, swaddled in cardigans or blankets and firing off emails to facilities about the "FREEZING" conditions while their male colleagues insist that the office climes are "just fine", there is a gender imbalance at play.
She wrote: "Clearly, this is a problem, and it’s one that’s backed up by scientific research. In 1998, researchers at the University of Utah found that though women had higher core temperatures than men (97.8 °F vs. 97.4 °F) their hands were consistently colder. While men registered an average hand temperature of 90 °F, the mean hand temperature for women was just 87.2 °F. That’s a hell of a lot colder, and scientists say it’s down to the size difference between men and women."
As I write this, I'm sitting at my own desk, in a newly built office block in east London, freezing my arse off.
I mean, I relate. As I write this, I’m sitting at my own desk, in a newly built office block in east London, freezing my arse off. I feel weak and almost flu-like whenever I’m here but as soon as I go outside I’m fine again. The skin on my body feels too tight, it is being dried out by the blasting cold air. I try to stretch my hands out and feel it pull. I bring a jumper to work even in high summer because I know it will always be too cold in this building, as it has been in every single building I’ve ever worked in.
If you perform a cursory Google search for "sexist air con" you’ll see just how many keyboard strokes have been spilled over this issue in far-flung corners of the internet, from Reddit to The New York Times.
Shortly after writing her piece, Sanghani appeared on Sky News to discuss it. And then the inevitable happened. Having (perhaps unwittingly) stuck her head above the parapet in the online gender culture wars, she was swiftly trolled by members of parts of the internet known as "the Manosphere". She was turned into a meme, dragged in multiple sexist MGTOW (Men Go Their Own Way) forums and Jordan Peterson fan subreddits and even began to receive rape threats.
Today she describes the abuse she got for talking about this issue as the worst she has ever experienced in her career. "I've written about feminism and race and been trolled for that but this was the most abuse I've ever received. It was 2015 and I still get at least one piece of online abuse daily now!"
Things kicked off again in May this year when another young female journalist, Taylor Lorenz, staff writer at The Atlantic, vented about freezing office temperatures in a tweet which no longer exists because she has set her account to auto-delete old posts:
"Air-conditioning is unhealthy, bad, miserable, and sexist. I can’t explain how many times I’ve gotten sick over the summer b/c of overzealous AC in offices. #BanAC"
Other users (mostly men, but also some women) descended and let her feel their ire. She was accused of being "a feminist troll". She wrote back defiantly: "Dying at all the men in my mentions having a literal *meltdown* because I suggested raising office temps a few degrees in the summer."
Lorenz wasn’t being flippant; there is recent research to back up her frustrations and while it shows that air con, an inanimate object, is not in and of itself sexist, there can be no doubt that men and women do have different temperature requirements.
In May this year, new research on this subject from the University of Southern California was published in the journal PLOS One. Following a study of 543 college students in Berlin, researchers Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite concluded that women are more productive when offices are warmer, while men perform slightly better at a lower temperature.
When Chang and Kajackaite lowered the temperature in the room, men performed better at logic, typing and language tasks. When they increased the temperature, women performed better at the same tasks.
The science is on her side so why did Taylor suffer such a backlash when she highlighted this issue? I message her to find out how she feels about it now, a few months on. She reflects that it's down to "pure sexism and misogyny".
"I tweet about AC every summer," Taylor says. "It’s been a lifelong struggle to deal with. I, like many women, have trouble keeping warm in the freezing temperatures. I wanted to vent about how unfair it was that men in the office were always comfortable while I froze in my sundress."
It was the most horrifying and terrible experience I've had since I got on the internet.
The backlash faced by Taylor, like that experienced by Radhika back in 2015, can only be described as wild. Her tweets started to do the rounds on several men's rights forums (MRA) and an MRA subreddit.
"It was insane," she says, adding that she suffered such serious online persecution that she hasn’t spoken about it since. "I’ve never received as much harassment in my life," she explains. "My phone number was released, people attempted to doxx me [publish private information], I was subject to violent threats, rape threats and the most horrific misogynistic abuse. I had to take an afternoon off work to cope. It was the most horrifying and terrible experience I’ve had since I got on the internet."
You don’t have to look far to find the forums and subreddits that Taylor is talking about. Today, they’re alive with bad faith arguments and outright misogyny. One meme that appears repeatedly in an MRA forum thread dedicated to the issue of whether or not air con is "sexist" is of an air conditioning unit with a speech bubble coming out of it which reads "show me ur tits, bitch".
"You see a similar backlash against other campaigns for equality and inclusiveness," Taylor notes, "it’s just toxic."
"When people say 'AC is sexist' what they mean is that the infrastructure of our world was built by men, to primarily accommodate men. It wasn’t built with women or with people with disabilities in mind," she adds. "It’s not inclusive. But it should be, and that’s what this conversation is about. Ideal room temperatures were developed to make men in suits more comfortable and not many women, not people with disabilities and not people with health issues. The fact is that everyone has their own temperature needs to be comfortable and offices should be more inclusive and accommodating of these varying needs. It’s about trying to accommodate everyone, not just one group of people who the system was built to work for."
This is an important conversation – based not on flimsy feminist assumptions but on mounting research.
Surely this is an important conversation – based not on flimsy feminist assumptions but on mounting research which could help employers to ensure that their workers are not only as productive but as comfortable as possible.
One (slightly generous) reading of the resistance to it is that people really, really hate not getting their way when it comes to room temperature. Another is that when anyone (especially a woman) suggests that women are unfairly discriminated against in favour of men because science is, well, a bit sexist and men's preferences have long been the default, it sets the internet alight with acerbic rage.
Anti-feminism – the idea that feminism is destroying civilisation because women ought to be subservient to men, and the resulting anger that they are not – and a denial of the science behind the problematic nature of office temperatures seem to go hand in hand. Comments on one subreddit range from "I have said it for years women are to lazzy [sic] to make their own body heat" to "I'm 99% certain I'd fire anyone stupid enough to complain to me about this. Yup, 99% certain. The 1% accounts for major head injuries and employing snowpeople (#equalsnowpeoplerights)."
Professor Sir Cary Cooper is an organisational psychologist specialising in workplace wellbeing at Manchester University’s Alliance Manchester Business School. He says that while "air conditioning obviously isn’t deliberately sexist per se, the use of air conditioning and climate control in workplaces and policies around workplace comfort and freedom from distraction in general can and do overlook certain important factors, such as the evidence that women and men react differently to ambient temperatures."
He thinks that this issue needs to be taken seriously. "According to the research that’s available as it relates to occupational health, a person’s metabolism influences how they experience ambient temperature and metabolic rates vary according to a number of factors, including sex, age and health status. But the 'thermal comfort standard' used to determine indoor climate control settings was established when offices were mostly occupied by men and based on the average male metabolic rate."
There is no doubt, Cary adds, that "employers could be doing more to ensure that everyone has access to an area at work that is comfortable. For example, during a heatwave, organisations could designate certain areas of the workplace to be cooler than others, and then encourage their people to work in the area that is most comfortable for them, rather than using a one-temperature-suits-all policy."
Nonetheless, an online cold war continues to rage. While researching this piece, I tweeted:
"Do you think air conditioning is sexist? Talk to me if so #journorequest"
The replies were telling. Women were among some of the speediest respondents, telling me that yes, air conditioning absolutely is sexist. However, one male Twitter user saw it differently:
"Christ almighty- if this doesn’t encapsulate everything that’s going wrong right now!? Isn’t the very assumption that the sexes singularly want opposite conditions in itself sexist? Can a machine be sexist? Is there no journalism without being devisive [sic]?"
Default office temperatures, like default 9-5 working hours and the cost of childcare, are just another example of how our society has been shaped without taking women’s needs into account and, when you think about the backlash faced by those who point this out, is it any wonder that we’re still sputtering towards equality in fits and starts?
We know that when workplace comfort drops because the temperature is not right, productivity follows closely behind. So in reality the debate surrounding so-called air con wars is about anything but how we make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible in the workplace. It is an attempt to silence women and deny their experiences.
When women's tweets about being too cold at work result in rape threats, there is something very, very wrong with our culture.