Analysis: here are the factors involved in why women really feel colder than men in the same room. 

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Are you sitting comfortably? Well, some of us aren't! When it comes to heating buildings, you can't please all of the people all of the time. Women report higher rates of dissatisfaction with their thermal environments, but do they really feel colder occupying the same space as men? Let's look at the factors involved. 

Thermal comfort

Defined by ISO 7730 as "that condition of mind which expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment", thermal comfort concerns both measureable environmental parameters like air temperature, air velocity, surface temperatures and humidity and physical, physiological and psychological factors. "Adaptive thermal comfort", as it is known, takes account of acclimatisation factors, how people can tolerate greater temperature fluctuations in naturally ventilated buildings (where windows can be opened) and indicates that having greater control over one’s thermal environment affects perceived thermal comfort.

Hormones

Hormones including Thyroid Stimulating Hormone, found in both men and women, help to regulate bodily functions and they do indeed play a role in thermal comfort. It is also now thought that fluctuations in certain sex hormones cause a woman’s temperature to drop and remain low during ovulation. This in turn keeps her immune function low so as not to attack any "foreign invaders" which may be present, helping them to survive and increasing the likelihood of a pregnancy occurring. At the same time however, she will be feeling colder and is more likely to get sick.

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From BBC Earth Lab, Gabriel Weston looks at the popular opinion that women are colder (or feel the cold) more than men

Metabolic rate

Metabolic rate is one of the primary variables for calculating thermal comfort. Models developed in the 1960s and 1970s use standard values for metabolic rate, based on an average male, for indoor climate regulation calculations. However, women tend to have a lower resting metabolic rate so many buildings are thought to be under performing by up to 35% and cannot be considered energy efficient for all occupants due to this overestimation.

Clothing

Clothing acts as insulation for our bodies to protect us from feeling cold. Female office attire can include dresses and thin blouses rather than the suits, shirts and jumpers which men often wear. Male clothing tends to cover more parts of the body and is also more thermally insulating.

Perception

Perception causes us to take voluntary corrective actions such as putting on a coat, complaining or closing a door/window to maintain thermal comfort, and also causes our bodies to respond automatically. Although we are not aware of it, when skin’s cold/warmth receptors sense a change in temperature, it signals to the brain and in turn to the body causing us to shiver, sweat or our hairs to stand on end to provide insulation as appropriate.

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From Australia's Science Channel, do women feel the cold more than men?

Core Temperature Regulation

When we heat buildings, it is not to apply heat to a person to attempt to "warm them". Since our core temperature sits at around 37 degrees Celsius (much higher than the 16 to 25 degree comfort ranges of our homes and offices), what we are really trying to do is prevent them from losing heat too quickly to their surroundings as this is what the sensors on our skin perceive to assess comfort. The greater the temperature differential these sensors at skin level detect, the greater the perceived deficit in comfort. Believe it or not, women have been found to have slightly higher normal temperatures than men. But rather than making them feel warmer as you might expect, it only serves to exacerbate this phenomenon and actually causes them to feel colder!

"Cold hands, warm heart"

Ever heard the saying ‘cold hands, warm heart’? This is particularly true for women due to a process known as Vasoconstriction. This is where blood vessels near the surface of the skin, most often on a woman’s hands and feet, squeeze together to move the warm blood around vital organs to keep core temperature higher at the expense of the less vital extremities. This causes a sensation of cold hands and feet (notably in bed!), requiring a woman to be in a higher temperature room in order to achieve the same level of comfort as a man.

But why does this vasoconstriction not occur to the same degree in men? Men tend to be larger, have more muscle mass and so are producing more heat so they don’t need to shut down the blood flow to the skin to maintain temperature.

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Brendan Benson's "Cold Hands (Warm Hearts)"

Exercise as well as other lifestyle factors such as sleep, alcohol consumption and tobacco use play a role in thermal comfort. Alcohol is a vasodilator which opens the blood vessels near the surface of the skin and can cause a person not only to put on the so called "beer coat", but also to be dangerously vulnerable to extreme temperatures which can lead to fatalities. Smoking causes the opposite effect and increased vasoconstriction occurs to the point where tissues may die off, causing the person to lose a limb. 

Turn up the heat or turn it down?

Employers with a gender balanced workforce may be interested to know that recent findings suggest they may be able to increase productivity by turning the thermostat up beyond what current standards call for. In any case, whatever the weather, remember that men and women experience temperature differently in the same space the next time you get into a battle of the thermostat in the office. 

If we want to continue to live happily ever after, we may have to turn the heat up just a little while we look for other ways to reduce our energy bills, improve energy efficiency and keep our carbon footprint down. Perhaps employing more low carbon, renewable and storage technologies in our office and homes would provide a more comfortable solution.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ