Air conditioning is sexist—and a debate between New York’s gubernatorial candidates shows it

Raising the political temperature.
Raising the political temperature.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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New York State governor, democrat Andrew Cuomo, and his progressive challenger, Cynthia Nixon, are scheduled to have their first (and likely only) debate tonight (Aug. 29). A lot will be on the plate: Cuomo will face his opponent shortly after it was made public that he received money from Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer during the same month in which he suspended an investigation on sexual assault charges against the producer.

But that’s not the issue that is drawing most attention in the hours ahead of the encounter. Instead, the conversation has been monopolized by another pre-debate debate, one over the quintessential office battle of the sexes—room temperature.

Cuomo is known for wanting freezing temperatures during big events: A 2011 article describing one of his State of the State speeches involves parka-wearing frozen guests; a state senator describing her feet like “two blocks of ice;” and an assemblyman calling the room “a meat locker.”

So a strategist for Nixon sent an email to WCBS-TV, which will be hosting the debate, asking for the temperature to be set instead to a more comfortable 76° F (or about 24° C).

The request should not be that big of a deal—after all, it’s a temperature above what energy-conscious countries set as the minimum limit for air-conditioned environments. But WCBS-TV, which has satisfied all of Cuomo’s requests for the debate for fear he would otherwise not show up, has not yet replied to the request, which was accompanied by a note that working environments are “notoriously sexist when it comes to room temperature,” according to the New York Times.

Women—they’re difficult, aren’t they?

What Nixon’s aide says is correct: There is ample evidence—scientific, as well as that based on the history of work environments—showing that the standard thermostat is set to satisfy a men’s ideal temperatures, which tend to be higher than women’s because of their metabolisms. The standard office temperature, one study found, is set to the liking of a 40-year-old man who weights 154 pounds (70 kilos).

This evidence is likely not needed by the many women who have to carry extra layers—sweaters, shawls, socks, even gloves—to wear in their offices, especially in summer, and have had their male colleagues suggest that they “wear an extra layer,” “go for a walk to warm up,” or “put on weight” (the author of this piece, an Italian who will never get used to America’s love of freezing fake air, has been given all of these answers in various offices). The suggested solution is, as always, for women to adjust.

Work environments may have become better for women—not fair, but better—yet office temperatures stand as a bastion of sexism. Complaining that the office is too cold can be a daily chore for the women who choose to pick that fight.

Nothing is as manly as comfort

What is telling about Nixon’s request that the room in which she debates have a bearable temperature isn’t just the way it’s been handled—or hasn’t. It is also the way it’s been reported. Most headlines open with variations of the question “Can air conditioning be sexist?” (Yes. Yes it can—it mostly is.). A New York Times headline reads “Can an office temperature be ‘sexist’? Women, and science, say so.” As if there were still a debate, nevermind science siding with women.

Some have argued that temperatures should be kept low until men are allowed to wear shorts in the office. It’s a fair point—it’s not fun to be uncomfortable at work. But for every poor man who is a little warm after being forced to wear trousers in summer, there is a woman who has to wear some combination of heels, padded bras, shape wear, pencil skirts, ill-fitting pants, and make up. On a good day, being a woman in the workplace feels like being a guy wearing long pants in summer.

But of course, comfort is a male privilege—and the way this temperature debate evolved shows it.

Predictably, Cuomo has dismissed the request. “Unlike Cynthia Nixon, the Governor has more important things to focus on than the temperature of a room,” said the Cuomo campaign in a statement.

Nixon and her staff have shown openness to negotiate. A strategist for the candidate suggested 76 degrees was an opening offer—and just a way for Nixon to avoid paralyzing discomfort. Which is still, even in a progressive campaign, as good as it gets for most women.