OPINION: Women shouldn’t have to wait any longer for potty parity

A restroom sign composed of a blue circle and a white triangle. On top of the white triangle, there is a blue “man” figure, a blue equals signs and a blue “woman” figure.
Graphic by Donnie TC Denome

Too much of my life has been spent waiting in line for the women’s bathroom. 

All women, I’m sure, are infuriatingly familiar with this experience. Lines regularly snake past sinks, around corners, out the bathroom door and down the corridor. Once, I waited in a line that left the building altogether and began in the parking lot.  

Lines for the ladies might be more bearable if it wasn’t for the sight of male friends and/or relatives striding straight into the gents’ room next door. Not to mention the inevitable realization, when they come out again, that you’ve moved exactly two inches.

In a typical busy bathroom, women have to wait up to 34 times longer than men, according to Insider. This is partly because the average woman takes 50 percent longer to use the toilet than the average man, according to The Conversation, a not-for-profit media outlet that publishes stories by researchers and academics. 

Women are slower for a myriad of reasons. Biologically, women have to spend time dealing with their periods and are more likely to have bladder problems

Opening stall doors, undressing and sitting down (or, more accurately, when it comes to public bathrooms, squatting) is a logistically longer business than urinals. Anyone who’s ever worn a jumpsuit knows that women’s fashion also has an impact. 

Socially, it’s usually mothers who take small children to the toilet with them. It’s also seen as more acceptable (or at least accepted) for men to pee outdoors, meaning they can skip the porta-potty line at a festival or outdoor concert.

The design of public bathrooms compounds the longer time that women have to spend in line for the toilet. Often, according to Science Daily, space is divided equally between female and male bathrooms. Since stalls take up more space than urinals, the average men’s bathroom ends up with 20 to 30 percent more places to go to the toilet than the women’s. 

As a society, we decide who gets to access bathrooms, how easily and at what cost. Toilet lines may sound like a trivial issue, but they’re a symptom of a system that mindlessly prioritizes men. 

The simple division of square footage — half for men’s toilets and half for women’s — is not true equality. Public spaces, including toilets, have been designed with little regard to women’s experiences. If the first architects designing public bathrooms had been women, I don’t think it’s a push to assume that wait times would be more equal.

Toilets, for all their mundanity, are inherently political. Perhaps the most high-profile dispute over bathrooms in recent years has been the important fight by transgender activists to access gender-neutral bathrooms. 

Public bathrooms have recently become a focal point for many other issues. This year, New York made it a legal requirement to include baby changing tables available to both women and men for all new public bathrooms, according to CNN. In Scotland, the government now provides free sanitary products in all schools, colleges, universities, libraries and leisure centers, according to the BBC

I was delighted to find out, when researching for this article, that there’s already a movement pushing for equality in toilet wait times — the potty parity movement. In 1987, the Restroom Equity Act came into place in California, where every restroom in large new public projects in the state must provide more female facilities, according to the LA Times

Still, this act clearly does not go far enough. 

It was signed into law more than two decades before I was born, and potty parity has certainly not been achieved. The act only covers new builds, and the vast majority of public bathrooms are not new. For more substantial change, legislation needs to force equality in already existing bathrooms. 

An alternative solution is to simply make all public bathrooms gender neutral. As of 2017, all single-occupancy public bathrooms in California are required by law to be gender neutral, according to Time

These bathrooms are primarily discussed as a way to make bathrooms available and accessible for transgender and non-binary people. But they also have another advantage — they reduce the disparity in wait times.

It’s not just a question of equality; it’s also one of efficiency. A study by Ghent University in Belgium found that a gender-neutral layout consisting of two stalls for every urinal reduces the overall waiting time by 63 percent: The average men’s waiting time might increase, but the average person’s will decrease by more than half.

Often, at a concert or music festival or sports event, male friends will roll their eyes when I say I’m going to the toilet. “But it will take so long,” they say, looking despairingly at the meandering women’s line before quickly nipping into the gents’.

The 5Cs have already made significant progress on this issue. Other organizations with responsibility for public bathrooms need to catch up. 

In the meantime, to all the men out there — don’t complain about women having bladders. Complain about the system that forces them to wait in interminable lines before they can relieve themselves. 

Ellie Woodward-Webster is a Pitzer College exchange student and English major from the U.K. She lives up to British stereotypes by drinking lots of tea, complaining about the weather and fully supporting waiting in lines (but only when it’s fair!). 

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