Two reasons HVAC and gender equality needs to be a top priority

In the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry – and the building sector in general – men are still in a vast majority. And although I wish it looked different, Swegon is no exception. I know we can do better, and I firmly believe a more equal organisation will be a more successful one.

But what has been somewhat of a blind spot to me personally, and I suspect for many more in the business, is how gender inequality affects the outcome of what we do. When looking at research regarding indoor environments, it’s clear that the male norm is also influencing the way buildings are designed, and that we are currently designing for men, at women’s expense.


The effects of systematically biased design

Just before the pandemic we conducted a large survey to map how people rate their wellbeing at work, looking especially at typical symptoms of insufficient indoor climate. A surprise finding was that women were more severely affected than men across a number of parameters.

There can of course be many explanations for this, but we have recently reviewed existing scientific research to see if we could find explanations from an indoor climate perspective. A troubling pattern became apparent. First of all, the standards we base our building designs on are largely based on an average man. Although men and women are very similar, the average man and average woman also have some distinct differences when it comes to how we are affected by indoor climate factors, both for physiological and cultural reasons.

In short – even if our buildings are designed and built to current standards, we run the risk of systematically optimising the indoor climate for men rather than women. The effect can be anything from women suffering more frequent headaches, to experiencing the disadvantages of not be able to perform at their best.

As HVAC professionals, we know how important the indoor climate is for our health and our ability to perform, so we are naturally worried about these findings, and realize we need to do our part to improve the situation. One important step is to drive diversity in our own organisation to avoid systematic bias in the way we think.

What are we doing to improve gender equality at Swegon?

The best place to initiate change, is to start with ourselves. That gender equality makes good sense from a moral stand-point goes without saying, and that it’s also sound business, is well documented by now. But just like many of our industry colleagues, we still have an uneven distribution of women and men in our organization.

I believe in the expression “what you measure, you can improve''. Therefore, we monitor different key ratios to understand our reality, helping us to identify areas for improvement and setting targets which are ambitious, but realistic. As an initial goal, set last year, we state that within a five-year period we will have a gender distribution with at least 30% female employees and 30% female managers.

So how can we achieve this, without compromising our commitment to only hire based on competence? We shouldn’t hire based on gender, not even for the sake of improving the numbers.

But if we just keep recruiting from within the male-dominated HVAC business, based on the same old assumptions as always, we will not reach our goals either. Here we need to challenge ourselves. The first challenge is to actively work with gender-balanced shortlists for recruitments, to force ourselves to think about the issue. The second challenge is to avoid lazily accepting old perceptions about what constitutes the relevant competence for the job. We have already started to see results from this change of mindset, with the gender balance improving in recent senior recruitments. But make no mistake, for each recruitment the overall statistics are irrelevant, we only hire the best person for the job. It just happens to open the door for a more even gender balance.

Building knowledge to drive change

Raising awareness and building knowledge is necessary for us to be able to challenge ourselves at Swegon, and our primary target is the recruiting managers in our organisation, where the theme is conveyed via leadership trainings and seminars.
But as I mentioned earlier, knowledge build-up also urgently needs to take place regarding the implications of gender biased design, both within our own organization and in the industry as a whole. We will drive this topic in the various industry associations we are part of, with the goal of ultimately reviewing the building standards. We also need to develop our products and systems, providing an even better toolbox to give men and women an equally healthy and productive indoor climate. And we need to discuss the topic of gender equality, in board rooms and at coffee breaks all across the industry.

P.S. If you want to read more on this topic, I recommend this blog about how our organization in Poland has managed to beat the statistics, and for the gender aspects of indoor climate aspects,
we have compiled a research summary to get the facts straight. Hopefully this will inspire to new ideas about how to change the industry!