Tonight I read an article in the New York Times about how lots of business set their thermostats according to a formula devised in the 1960s, which assumed the average office worker was a 40-year-old, 154-pound man. Because of the differences in base metabolic rate between men and women, not to mention different standards of seasonal clothing, this results in countless women bundling up every summer to avoid freezing at work.
What struck me about the article was the way it framed its topic. “Women get cold more easily,” it tells us. It could just have well said “Men overheat more easily.” A small linguistic difference — but not an insignificant one. Saying that women get cold more easily defines the male average as the norm, and women as deficient in their ability to warm themselves. Phrasing it the other way around defines the female average as the norm, and men as deficient in their ability to cool themselves.
I get a lot of this in my daily life, because I am definitely at the warm end of the spectrum. In fact, a little while ago one of my friends made a comment about how I have a very narrow range of temperatures at which I can be comfortable. I retorted that this was not true: it’s just that half of my range is considered completely unacceptable by society at large, so nobody ever sees it. Long before we get anywhere near my upper limit, everybody else is pleading for a window to be opened because they’re dying of heat. (They should try working in my office. It’s upstairs, with a western facing, in a townhouse with no air-conditioning and three skylights. On a warm summer day, it isn’t uncommon for the temperature at my desk to approach ninety degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t claim to enjoy that temperature — but almost every person of my acquaintance would flee for their life.)
The article was mostly even-handed, pointing out that it would be more energy-efficient in summer to raise the temperature a little, not to mention more considerate of female employees, and that a lot of offices have setups that completely warp temperature control anyway, with cubicles and partitions stopping airflow and thermostats in different rooms from the areas they regulate. But still, the bias was ingrained in the language, even as it was pointing out how bias is ingrained in the culture. If we want to avoid the latter, we need to notice the former.