In 2015, a study published in Nature Climate Change concluded that many women do indeed work in an excessively chilly climate. The study was not about gender inequality in the workplace. In this case, the researchers were actually measuring the temperature of offices.

Every summer, office temperatures plunge as air conditioners are cranked up. Ironically, for many women, this means toting sweaters and scarves to work during the hottest months of the year. Some women even report the need to take breaks outside to warm up. Researchers Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt discovered that the problem is real and that there is also a simple explanation and solution.

“Thermal comfort models,” which guide office temperatures, have historically been set based on the assumption that the workers who occupy workplaces are, on average, 40-year-old men who weigh approximately 154 pounds. While this may have been a more or less accurate estimation in the 1960s when the models were first developed and implemented, it is no longer an accurate measure of most workplace demographics. In short, “thermal comfort models” are based on a norm that has been set based on a false assumption about who is actually in the workplace.[i]

Fortunately, when it comes to temperatures, there is a very easy fix—simply raise the thermostat to accommodate the needs of everyone in the workplace. But the climate study is important on a another level.

First, the study clearly demonstrates the extent to which workplaces continue to be designed and operated following a set of assumptions about who is present. Second, the study serves as a reminder that one’s work environment can and does have a profound impact on who can comfortably or easily work in a space. It is precisely such simple but important observations that underpin the field of Universal Design or UD.

In a nutshell, UD is a design approach that strives to ensure that spaces and products are designed to be welcoming and usable by the most diverse range of people. At its core, UD is about simplicity, flexibility, and efficiency. Originally designed to create more accessible spaces for people with disabilities and the aging, over time, UD has lived up to its name. In short, it’s universal—it benefits all.

For example, in recent years there’s been a growing movement to use the principles of UD to create workplaces where it is easier to hear. This is critical since as the workforces ages and a higher percentage of workers stay in the workforce longer, more workplaces are home to workers struggling with some degree of hearing loss.

In this case, the design solution is obvious. Everything from the office layout to the choice of flooring materials to the ceiling height impact acoustics. In many cases, minor adjustments to one or more of these features can make a world of difference for a worker suffering from hearing loss. But this is not the only upside.

We also know that workers with all levels of hearing tend to work more efficiently in environments with reduced background noise. When it comes to acoustics, then, UD is not only critical to ensuring that workers with hearing loss can function but also has notable benefits for all workers.

Whether you’re simply raising the thermostat because not everyone in your workplace is a 40-year old man who weighs about 154 pounds, or you’re moving walls to minimize background noise and heighten sight lines to accommodate workers and clients with different levels of hearing, diversity, and design are inextricably linked. Like progressive policies, design can help to drive diversity.

[i] Boris Kingma and Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, “Energy Consumption in Buildings and Female Thermal Demand,” Nature Climate Change (August 2015),