At work and at home, women are losing the 'thermostat war'

Women think they have to fight to be at a comfortable temperature. It may be a losing battle.


Office ‘thermostat wars’ are framed as a battle of the sexes, with men preferring cooler temperatures and women preferring warmer climes. These battles aren’t without cause: Most offices set their thermostats to a temperature based on a 1966 formula specifically designed to keep 40-year-old men happy.

The struggle extends to the home front, too. But when it comes to the household, it appears that only women feel like they are fighting a war on temperature, new research suggests.

In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers report that women are more likely to report engaging in conflict over the temperature at home, while men are significantly more likely to say they engage in agreements and compromises.

“Thermostat dictator”

These three types of interactions — agreements, compromises, and conflict — result in different thermostat choices. The researchers evaluated two weeks of diary entries written by the 112 participants. They found that agreement or compromise over what the temperature of the house was between men and women are associated with a higher likelihood of adjusting the thermostat that day. But thermostat discussions that ended in a fight are associated with a lower likelihood of adjusting the temperature.

“We saw some examples of a conflict whereby one member of the household seemed to act as somewhat of a ‘thermostat dictator,’” Nicole Sintov, assistant professor at the Ohio State University and study author, tells Inverse.

Women are -- more often than men -- uncomfortable with the temperature at home. 


“For instance, a participant expressed she was feeling uncomfortable and asked her spouse if they could turn the heat up. The spouse said he felt fine, so the thermostat stayed where it was.”

The results suggest tweaking the temperature may serve as a way to appease the household, Sintov says.

While the sample size is small, these results suggest that women not only report temperature troubles at home more frequently, but they are also less likely to choose the temperature in the first place.

That trend may be explained by social dynamics and unfortunate biology. There is simply no ideal temperature for everyone, says Tom Chang, associate professor at University of Southern California, who was not involved in the study.

“We can make some statements about averages based on survey evidence, but that is a gross generality,” he tells Inverse.

What temperature a person thrives at depends not on a 60-something-year-old study, but on a number of biological factors, including (but not limited to) age, physical activity level, and stress.

Taking control of the temperature

Agency may be important, too: Past research suggests that a strong predictor of thermal comfort is how much one perceives that they have control over the temperature. If people feel like they have chosen the temperature of their environment, they are more likely to be satisfied. 

For women, that feeling of control may be a rare luxury, Sintov says. There’s evidence that, on average, women feel like they have less control over temperature settings at home than men, and men are more likely to be in charge of equipment related to heating and cooling in the home, she says. If women don’t think they have control over the temperature of their home, this could contribute to more frequent dissatisfaction.

Women may also be less likely to negotiate in situations that they feel are losing battles, according to previous studies. Taken together, the outlook for women’s fight for temperate climes isn’t great.

Choosing one temperature and sticking to it didn’t appear to help households either, Sintov’s study suggests. Whether or not the thermostat is pre-programmed does not have an effect on whether or not occupants fiddle with it, the study finds.

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t offer a solution — which is a bummer for cold women. It is also frustrating for researchers like Sintov who study how we can be more energy efficient. If researchers understand how people choose how much energy to use at home, then they will have a better understanding of what energy technology consumers want and need, she says.

But this study didn’t end up revealing whether or not certain thermostat choices make for better energy saving. Instead, the team saw that home temperatures fluctuate based on different family member’s needs — but, the majority of the time, it’s the needs of the men and not the women that win out.

Although advanced thermostat technologies offer energy efficiency potential, these devices alone do not guarantee savings. Household occupants often deviate from thermostat programs, perhaps due to differing thermal comfort preferences, which are strong drivers of residential energy use and vary across genders. This study aims to develop an initial typology of interpersonal interactions around thermal comfort, explore the role of gender in such interactions, and examine the impacts of interactions on thermostat adjustments. Using n = 1568 diary observations collected from 112 participants, we identify three interaction types: conflicts, compromises, and agreements. Fixed effects analyses find that women are marginally more likely to report engaging in conflicts, whereas men are significantly more likely to report engaging in agreements and compromises, both of which are associated with greater likelihood of adjusting thermostats within a given day. This work represents an early step in investigating the multiply determined nature of household energy decisions.
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