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How Sexist Is Your Office Temp? by Sarah Skwire

My Facebook wall is bursting with people arguing over a recent article from theWashington Post that claims that air conditioning in the office is sexist.

Women, argues Petula Dvorak, are naturally inclined to suffer more from the cold, so office thermostats set at 68 or 70 degrees keep men comfortable, but make women miserable. Her article strongly implies that this is done because men lack consideration for the comfort of others and because women are denied the power and the agency to get temperatures set where they want them.

I am a small cold woman who keeps two blankets in her office. I sympathize.

But despite my sympathy, I think Dvorak — and most of my Facebook friends — are missing an extremely important point: The fact that there are women suffering in overly air-conditioned offices is not a sign of how oppressed we are. It is a sign of how far we have come.

The economist Claudia Goldin has written persuasively about the long-term changes in women’s work over the course of the 20th century. She notes that the soaring rate of women’s labor force participation from the 1950s-1970s is part of a greater, century-long revolution. And it is that revolution that means that there are more and more women who are able to be in an office to begin with.

Once we’re in the office, we’re cold. But let’s not allow the chill to lull us to sleep. We can complain so loudly about the A/C because women are present in working environments in increasing numbers. That’s a good thing.

Dvorak gets a lot of mileage from her outrage over men’s office attire. They wear suits and ties and broadcloth shirts and are thus comfortable in air conditioning, while women dressed in seasonally-appropriate attire shiver from cold.

Why, she wonders, don’t men simply dress more appropriately?

Office dress codes are certainly part of the answer, but a larger part of the answer seems to be that women got a revolution that has missed men entirely — a revolution in dress.

Underneath her conservative suit, the working woman of the 1950s would have worn something like the Playtex Living Girdle, made of perforated rubber, and designed to produce the sleek figure required by the fashions of the time.

Rubber girdles certainly did that. But they were also hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable. Women who were freed of them by the new fashions of the ‘60s and the invention of pantyhose were nothing but grateful.

And the current generation of women — who have rejected even pantyhose as a relic of the past — are freer than ever… and colder. Ditching girdles and hose means that we have fewer layers between us and the office air conditioning. We’ve burned our foundation garments, but the fire hasn’t kept us warm.

I certainly don’t suggest returning to girdles or leaving the workplace in order to stay warm.

But I do think it’s dumb to blame the patriarchy, as represented by the guy in the next cubicle, for the fact that we’re cold.

We’re cold because we won the revolution. And now we have the power to request more equitable dress codes for our male colleagues, or to design offices with individualized climate controls, or to recognize that the world isn’t perfect, but that sometimes a little sweater can help.

Sarah Skwire
Sarah Skwire

Sarah Skwire is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.