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1st March 2022

Turning the heat up on gender politics: Is the Main Library too cold for female students?

A ‘chilling’ discovery finds that the University of Manchester sets the libraries’ thermostats to 19c-21c, despite the preferred workplace temperature being 24 degrees Celsius for women and 22 degrees Celsius for men. 
Turning the heat up on gender politics: Is the Main Library too cold for female students?
University of Manchester Main Library. Photo: DPOrman @ Wikimedia

Have you ever been sitting in the main library and wondered why you are so unable to be productive? Well, this may not actually be due to the fact you didn’t get home from the AU social until 4am the night before or because you didn’t attend any of the lectures needed for the essay in hand, but in actual fact it’s due to the ‘freezing’ conditions under which you are working. A recent investigation by The Mancunion has revealed that the University of Manchester sets the library thermostat to 19 degrees Celsius, despite many researchers suggesting that the optimal temperature in working environments is 22 degrees Celsius. 

Figures obtained by The Mancunion via a Freedom of Information request reveal that the University of Manchester uses a set temperature point of 19 degrees Celsius in its Main Library, meaning that the thermostat is programmed to maintain this temperature throughout the day. Moreover, this set point also remains constant throughout the year, often meaning that students find it too cold in the winter and too warm in the summer. Although this way of controlling temperature may be cost and energy efficient for the University it does mean, however, that it is not typically a comfortable temperature for students to be working under. 

Studies have also found that women prefer the thermostat to be higher than men, sometimes by up to 4 degrees Celsius. It is understood that due to natural anatomy and metabolic rate, the male body generally has more muscle mass and is therefore more able to generate and maintain a warmer temperature. Thus, men feel most comfortable in rooms where the thermostat is set to 21.6 degrees Celsius whilst women prefer rooms closer to 25 degrees Celsius. 

However, it is not only comfort that is at the mercy of the thermostat, but the temperature of your working space also actually has a bigger impact on your productivity and ability to retain information than you might think, especially if you are female. A 2019 University of Southern California (USC) study concluded that “men perform slightly better at a lower temperature, suggesting that gender and temperature are linked in more ways than one.” USC subjected a variety of men and women to mathematical and verbal tasks in varying temperature conditions, from 16c to 32c and found that performance on tasks largely differed depending on the conditions and sex of the person. The research found that women perform better at temperatures between 70 and 80-degrees Fahrenheit, the equivalent of 21 and 26.6 degrees Celsius whereas men work better below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This therefore means that the Main Library is 2-7 degrees Celsius proves too cold for female students, but in the perfect range for males.

A similar German study also found that for every 1c increase in temperature, women had a 1.76 percent increase in the number of maths questions answered correctly. When temperatures were lowered, men performed better, but the difference was much less prominent. From these findings, a conclusion was drawn that “… in mixed gender workplaces, the temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards to increase productivity.” These findings are in line with a widely supported argument that the thermostats in working environments join the long list of things that tend to be tailored to the male preference and have not been proven to be at the expense of female comfort and productivity. This was further reinforced by a recent poll in the Manchester Student Group that discovered that 71% of male students surveyed did not even notice the cold temperatures of the main library whilst 87% of female students felt the conditions were uncomfortably cold. The University has proven that it has the resources and the ability to create a warm learning environment as the Stopford Library is at a practical set temperature of 21 degrees Celsius, reaching the minimum warmth expected in a working environment. 

It is, therefore, understandable why students at the University of Manchester go to such extreme lengths to keep warm in the main library. One post-graduate female student said that on one occasion during the exam period “I sat in the main library shivering, my hands were that cold that I couldn’t type, in fact… me and my friends actually took hot water bottles and gloves… If I know I will be going to the library at some point in the day I will always be sure to bring at least one extra layer.” The same student also implied that the University is aware of this temperature issue as she says that: “[The University] used to keep blankets in baskets dotted around the main library but I don’t know if they still do that because of covid.” However, for some students it is not just a matter of discomfort and inconvenience but a matter of real health risk as one student voiced their struggle; “I have rheumatoid arthritis and my condition is significantly affected by the cold to the point where I’ve been unable to sit in main library for a while or I always have to wear joggers [or] two layers.” 

A student also noted that temperature is just one more hindrance to learning in the library as they say “it’s hard enough finding a place to sit anyway when it is near exams and that takes up valuable study time, the temperature makes that even more difficult.” Another female student also stated that “the libraries are not fit for studying, a certain temperature is required for concentration which the libraries are definitely below. Libraries are meant to provide ideal working conditions but how cold they are forces students to resort to go elsewhere to study elsewhere.” 

As a result of this, many students turn to the warm embrace of the on-campus Café Nero or Pret as they provide an ambiance that the library’s central heating does not provide – although it must be noted that the warm coffee further increases comfort. However, it is not as cosy as it sounds as café working forces students to spend a considerable amount on drinks and does not have the same access to certain resources that only the library can provide, which can actually have a very detrimental effect on student education. “For £9,000 tuition fee a year the least the University could provide is a comfortable learning environment for all students, they should not have to seek refuge in the arms of the corporate coffee overlords,” as Sophie, a first-year student stated.

This issue seems to be one of universal debate and was recently solved by UC Davis, California as their Energy Conservation Office founded a resource named ‘TherMOOstat’ that allows students and faculty members to provide comfort feedback directly to the University on the temperature of all its campus buildings in real time. The ‘TherMOOstat’ says that it is “smarter than a thermostat because we know comfort varies from person to person, and room temperature control shouldn’t rely solely on the thermostat on the wall.” Currently, the UoM library thermostat is controlled by the Facilities Management team who do not operate within the university building and therefore are not aware in real time of how comfortable the temperature is and how this is affecting students. It is obviously not plausible or efficient to have a member of the maintenance team to sit in the library and control the thermostat minute by minute so a similar tool would be of great benefit to UoM. It would allow them to save energy and costs on unnecessary heating whilst also being of great benefit to students because they would be able to give subjective and instantaneous feedback that could lead to greater comfort and productivity in the library. 

So, in the age-old struggle for equality in the workplace and in opportunity, women have one more unanticipated adversary: the ‘sexist’ thermostat that is making them less intelligent. The University should change its method of temperature control in its main library to ensure a comfortable and effective environment where all students can study in optimal working conditions, but ladies, if you are planning on heading down to the library any time soon be sure to pack a wooly hat and leg warmers or perhaps take a detour to Stopford or Ali G.

When contacted for comment a University spokesperson said: “Our Main Library building has been extended over the years, and there is a noticeable difference in the temperature depending on which area you are in. Although on the surface this may not seem ideal, it does offer the opportunity for students to select an area with a temperature they find comfortable which supports their productivity. We discontinued the baskets of blankets because of Covid-19, but this is something we may look to reintroduce next Winter.”

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