Imagine you designed a brand new night club, movie theater, stadium, or concert hall; a place for people to gather and enjoy themselves, to watch a music show or football match. You picked just the right colors, used interesting shapes, took care about acoustics, visibility, accessibility, comfort. You got everything right. Still, about half of people visiting your new masterpiece of modern architecture won’t be able to enjoy it to the full potential, but instead spend enormous amount of time waiting in a toilet line. Why? Because you thought that providing equal square footage in men’s and women’s restrooms is fair enough.
photo by Xerones
What does a value of equal opportunities have in common with public restrooms? Equal opportunity is described as a situation in which people have the same chances in life as other people, without being treated in an unfair way because of their race, sex, sexuality, religion, or age. So, are all people treated right in public restrooms? Just by observing long lines that form in front of the women’s’ toilets you can sense that it is a place of unequal opportunities – at least unequal speed of access. Furthermore, different people have different specific needs that architects should take into consideration when designing. Since everyone uses restrooms multiple times a day, negligence in design may be a regular source of annoyance, discomfort, and frustration for some users. I belive that when simple changes in design have potential to significantly improve quality of life and promote universal values, then it should be done so.
Class issues: women, men and businessmen; photo by jdlasica
Public restrooms have manifested many forms of discrimination throughout history according to Anthony’s and Dufresne’s review of literature (2007): restrooms in airports where wealthier travelers go, are much nicer than in bus stations; restrooms in cities are inaccessible to the homeless; restrooms used to be racially segregated and inaccessible to the disabled.
photo by TunnelBug
Today, women might be the users that are in many ways most affected by inadequate restrooms. I’ll be dealing with waiting in lines that we usually take for granted later – inadequate or unequal women’s restrooms aren’t the only form of discrimination – sometimes they are missing completely. The absence of women’s lavatories clearly reflects the exclusion of women from public power and public space. In United States for example, there was no restroom for women senators near the Senate floor until 1992, when the number of women in the Senate went from two to seven (Talev, 2006, according to Plaskow, 2008). What’s even harder to belive is that the absence of women’s bathrooms has been used as an excuse against hiring women or admitting them into previously all-male organizations. Institutions as diverse as Yale Medical School, Harvard Law School, and the Bronx and Brooklyn Bar Associations have claimed that they were unable to let in women because no restroom facilities were available for them. The Virginia Military Institute made the same argument as recently as 1996 (Cooper et al., 1999, according to Plaskow, 2008). Makes you wonder how much effort does it take to convert one men’s restroom into women’s or unisex? Just change the door sign.
Uniquely Bhutanese restroom signs (“miniskirts” are for men); photo by Michael Foley Photography
Lets now go back to why equal sized men’s and women’s restrooms can’t offer equal speed of access to its users. (Women don’t actually just go powder their noses in there.) Wang and Huang (2005) found that the average time spent by women for urination needs is 1.6 to 2.0 times longer than men, depending on whether men use a water closet or urinal. Therefore, they suggest that it may be appropriate to provide women’s restrooms with 1.6 to 2 times as many toilet fixtures as men’s restrooms.
I think that when you take women’s other needs into account, the ratio should be even higher. Women go more often to bathrooms. Urinary tract infections and incontinence are more common in women. Pregnancy, menstruation, breastfeeding, and baby diaper-changing (more often done by women) increase restroom usage . The elderly, who are disproportionately female, take longer and more frequent bathroom visits (Plaskow, 2008).
Weaker and stronger gender, literally?; photo by Mobelgrad
To avoid using restroom facilities, women will often forgo eating or drinking, and will often “hold it,” which poses the risk of urinary tract infections, loss of concentration in school, bladder and bowel dysfunction, low birth weight babies in pregnant women (Anthony and Dufresne,2007). Ethical concern is a reason that seems strong enough to encourage some changes in women’s bathrooms. But since designers are usually limited by their clients’ resources and views of restrooms as a wasted space, I think that using the economical argument might help – all who aim to benefit from women eating, drinking, and spending long hours in their places, like restaurant and shopping center owners, should be interested in making them feel comfortable and free of frustration. And, of course, there is something in taking responsibility for our own fate – we can’t expect men to be fighting instead of us (even though, in some cases in the U.S the so called potty-parity laws have been proposed not by female legislators, but by men who were infuriated at having to wait too long for wives, girlfriends, and daughters to come out of public restrooms). Why is it that we complain only when standing in that line?
…to be continued – on discrimination in public restrooms from men’s point of view…
1. Anthony, K. H. and Dufresne, M. (2007) Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public Restrooms. Journal of Planning Literature, 21, 3, pp 267-294 (link)
2. Plaskow, J. (2008) Embodinment, elimination, and the role of toilets in struggles for social justice. Cross Currents 58 (1): pp 51–64 (full text)