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Are there gender differences in how we perceive temperatures?

I’m busy working away the other day when one of my coworkers stops short. All the other women working in my office space are in sweaters and have extra space heaters. I, on the other hand, am sitting in a sleeveless top quite comfortably. My coworker said that I gave credence to the guys who were saying the temperature was fine (I don’t think this was a good thing). While she has a special warm wardrobe to wear when she visits this office space.

Do men and women experience temperatures differently? It turns out this is a more difficult question to answer than I thought. But I will summarize the main explanations that I found.

Like so many things, that whole 98.6º F is a bit of a misinterpretation. The average is across male and female, something that isn’t actually entirely valid. On average, women actually have a slightly higher body temperature than men do. But a couple tenths of a degree doesn’t explain why we experience temperatures so differently.

Surface area to body mass is one suggestion out there. Women tend to be smaller than men, therefore they have greater surface area to body mass ratios. In other words, they have more skin, exposed to the external environment, relative to the amount of other structures like muscle and fat. As a result, they have proportionally more temperature sensors exposed to the outside air, and therefore feeling the cold, or potentially the heat.

Another theory relates to muscle mass. Muscle has a higher energy output than fat does. Since men, stereotypically have higher muscle mass they generate more energy, and keep themselves warmer.

Another factor relates to how you respond to cold. Generally speaking, your body will constrict blood vessels in your extremities when you are cold. This helps to reduce heat loss, and keeps the core of your body warm. Of course, it also makes it harder to warm your extremities up. As a consequence, you actually will feel colder faster.

There is no clear answer. I am tall for a woman so perhaps I have a smaller body mass to skin ratio. I also have some pretty good muscle, which probably helps with my energy output. I’m also fairly acclimatized to cold from a variety of winter sports. Does one or all of these make me less susceptible to the cold than some of my female colleagues?

Regardless of the reasons, the trick is finding a happy temperature for everyone. No one has to wear gloves to work, and no one is being overwhelmed by heat. Good luck.



About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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