Colleges and universities are grappling with various debates involving gender and fairness. New research points to the next potential flash point: the disadvantage that women and girls face when forced to compete in a chilling environment.
"Chilling," in this case, is not a metaphor.
A German study finds that women generally perform better in math and verbal tests when the exam is taken in a warmer room. Conversely, men do better in cooler conditions.
The results suggest that "ordinary variations in room temperature can affect cognitive performance significantly, and differently for men and women," write co-authors Tom Chang of the University of Southern California and Agne Kajackaite of the Berlin Social Science Center.
The hand that controls the thermostat has more power than you might think.
The study, published in the online journal PLoS One, featured 542 students from several universities in Berlin. Subjects gathered in groups of 23 to 25 in an experimental economics laboratory, where the temperature was set at anywhere between 61 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Participants completed three tests. In the math portion, they were asked to add five two-digit numbers without a calculator. In the "word building" task, they were provided with a set of 10 letters and instructed to build as many German words as possible from them in five minutes.
Finally, they were given a cognitive reflection test, in which they were asked three tricky questions (in each case, the intuitive answer was wrong).
The researchers found that "females generally exhibit better cognitive performance at the warmer end of the temperature distribution, while men do better at colder temperatures." This difference—found for both the math and word-making tests, but not the logic test—"appears to be driven largely by an increase in the number of submitted answers."
"Similarly, the decrease in male cognitive performance is partially driven by a decrease in observable effort," they add (cautioning that the boost in women's scores was "larger and more precisely estimated" than the decline of men's). In other words, when things heated up, the women found it stimulating, and subsequently worked harder. Not so the men.
In announcing the findings, Chang noted that these effects were not only evident at extreme temperatures. "Even if you go from 60 to 75 degrees, which is a relatively normal temperature range, you still see a meaningful variation in performance."
"Our results potentially raise the stakes for the battle of the thermostat," the researchers declare. It appears that room temperature "is not just about comfort, but also about cognitive performance and productivity."
Their conclusion: "In gender-balanced workplaces, temperatures should be set significantly higher than current standards."
These findings could create a conundrum for activists on the left: At least in the cold winter months, turning the thermostat down could help solve one social problem (saving energy) while exacerbating another (gender inequality).
One can easily picture competing campus protests, as people pick their priorities. Things could definitely get heated.