Career Woman

Psychologist explains the impact of overlooking barriers to female productivity


Workplaces are getting more equal, but there’s still a long way to go. Women face different challenges to men at work and are often disadvantaged because too many workplaces are designed by men as the standard. Even when businesses are striving for equality, things get missed.

And it’s often the seemingly small things that can have a big impact. For example, an April 2019 study by a London building maintenance firm found that 83% of people found their place of work to be physically unpleasant. But what really stands out in this study is why those workplaces were considered unpleasant and how it impacted the workforce.

The biggest source of workplace discomfort was the ambient temperature. And this had an outsized effect on women. While both men and women complained that their workplaces were either too cold or too hot, women were significantly more likely to report working in an uncomfortable temperature than men.

There’s science to back this up too. Women and men have different metabolic rates and this has an impact on what is called ‘thermal demand’. That essentially means women can feel the cold more. So when summer comes around, and those thermostats get dialed down, women end up shivering and uncomfortable. This is because climate standards were established back in the bad old days when workplaces were places for men. And men are more comfortable than women at lower temperatures.

There’s another issue too. Women find it harder to concentrate when it’s too cold. A study conducted in Germany in 2019 found that women performed better on math and verbal tasks when the ambient temperature was higher. So ice-cold air conditioning is not only uncomfortable for women, it’s a barrier to productivity.

The April study into workplace complaints also highlighted other areas where women suffer disproportionately. One of the biggest complaints for women was poorly maintained or ‘shabby’ bathrooms. Since women and men use bathrooms differently and men can typically be in and out of there a lot quicker, this creates a bias. Bad smells was another complaint that disproportionately impacted women. Men have been less likely to be bothered by offensive odors in the workplace.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper psychologist who specializes in organizational theories and applying them to get the best out of workforces. He thinks businesses overlook the basics.

A physically unpleasant workplace is obviously bad for productivity and for an organization’s external image. Issues like uncomfortable temperatures and general shabbiness can be a distraction, but it’s also a matter of respect from employers toward their people.

“Those that don’t meet basic standards of comfort are sending a signal to their people that their physical comfort and freedom from distraction are a low priority, which can be demoralizing for any workforce. That’s not to say organizations need to invest in high-spec fit-outs and luxurious surroundings, but they should focus instead of meeting a basic standard of environmental comfort appropriate for their industry.

“The complaints highlighted in the study suggest a wide spectrum of failure when it comes to meeting these basic standards. Workplaces should be a comfortable temperature and well-lit where possible, free from intrusive noise, bad smells and other avoidable sources of unpleasantness.”

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