Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
It's a subtle form of discrimination, a health risk, and maybe a massive economic concern. The upcoming World Toilet Day 2014 is a call to action.
We talk about poor design all the time, yet rarely do we discuss one of the world's most tangible and pervasive design failures: The lack of adequate restrooms for women.
Research shows women take on average twice as long as men in the restroom, yet it is the rare public space that provides equal access. An insufficient number of women's restrooms regularly results in mind-bogglingly disproportionate wait times, leading to countless minutes wasted at sports arenas, movie theaters, and perhaps worst of all, the office.
At the U.S. Capitol, female lawmakers up until recently faced the indignity (and legislative disadvantage) of having to use a distant restroom for tourists, since there were none directly adjacent to the House floor. John Boehner rectified that disparity in 2010, but still no federal legislation mandates this kind of reform elsewhere.
"When many buildings were laid out, [restroom access for women] didn't make a big difference because there weren't many women in the offices or in positions of power," says John F. Banzhaf III, a public interest lawyer and professor at George Washington University. Banzhaf has filed federal complaints arguing that disparate restroom access may be a violation of equal protection rights. Many older buildings were also designed at a time when contractors, architects, engineers, builders, and government procurement officials were overwhelmingly male and so rarely considered the needs of women—a fact pointed out at a 2010 Committee on Oversight and Government Reform meeting, which was the last time a 'potty parity' bill was brought to the federal level. It died.
Kathryn Anthony, a professor of architecture and women's studies at the Univeristy of Illinois, testified at that meeting. She's dedicated much of her career to researching how some are "disadvantaged by design"—the way "housing, schools, work environments, and retail spaces have hidden biases that disadvantage by body, gender, and age," she tells me by phone. "The potty parity examples are blatant... It was very disappointing to see that bill drop."
"Potty parity" is a laughable term, but the issue is serious. As Anthony and a colleague pointed out in a 2007 article, this subtle, lasting form of gender discrimination is also a health concern, especially for women. At least a quarter of all adult women are menstruating at any time. Women are also more likely to suffer from incontinence or have small children to attend to—stressful, debilitating issues when there's not an available restroom. Holding it can also result in digestive and urinary tract conditions.
In the U.S., at least 21 states and jurisdictions have bills that address the issue of unequal speed of access to restrooms, in various forms: Some require at least an equal number of men's and women's toilets in public facilities (urinals included in the overall count), others a two-to-one ratio. Most apply to new buildings only. Not all of these laws are perfect—some have even resulted in longer wait-times for men—but they are at least steps toward national equity.
Other countries are far ahead. Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, helped change Singapore's laws in 2005 to create larger public restrooms for women. Hong Kong and Japan have similar laws on the books. "How can they not pass it?" Sim says by phone, referring to the lack of federal legislation in the U.S. He points out that the loss of time for women waiting in line, and the men waiting for them, may ultimately result in economic losses. "The woman is liberated but the toilet is not liberated," he says. "Let's finish up the job."
Sim is pretty serious about that—his organization is hosting the first annual Urgent Run this Sunday, a global "mobilization event" to promote awareness of the lack of proper sanitation affecting some 2.5 billion world citizens—and particularly women and girls, who face not only disease but missed school, public shame, and sexual attack for want of a toilet. Such risks garnered global attention last May, when two women in Uttar Pradesh—India's largest state—were raped and hanged from a tree after relieving themselves in an open field in the black of night.
Sixteen Urgent Run events will be organized in 12 countries, with a flagship 5K run to be held in Singapore on November 9. Other runs and events will take place in India, Germany, Italy, the Philippines, Indonesia, Ghana, Senegal, Benin, Gambia, Togo and Mozambique through November 19, the date recognized by the U.N. last year as World Toilet Day.
"If you don’t have a toilet, and need to have one, it’s a very very stressful situation," says Sim. "No human being should be put in that situation, and no woman should be put in that situation."
And in the U.S., no architect, contractor, or plumber should create that situation by not considering the needs of women—not to mention transgender people. In Washington, D.C., all single-stall public bathrooms are required to be gender-neutral. That's one solution to unequal wait times: If there's a line for unisex bathrooms, everyone stands in it, not just some. The American Restroom Association advocates for increased unisex restrooms, wherever feasible.
But in places where space is at a premium, those can't be the only solutions. Federal law could easily require equal speed of access in new and retrofitted buildings, with flexibility in design, so that no one faces a longer line than someone else on the basis on their gender.
"Our nation's history shows that the structure and accessibility of American public restrooms have served as manifestations of more deeply rooted problems of discrimination, among race, physical ability and gender," Edolphus Towns, former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in 2010. "We must move the clock forward by finally addressing an overdue problem of unequal, inadequate and inaccessible public restrooms for women."
The clock is indeed ticking, and it's urgent.