The gender politics of public restrooms

The gender politics of public restrooms
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First Published: Sun, May 24 2009. 09 03 PM IST

Updated: Sun, May 24 2009. 09 03 PM IST
Waiting in long queues to get to the restroom has been an uncomfortable, if not unhealthy, reality for generations of women at places such as stadiums, arenas and theatres. Men may see relatively quick marches through the lavatories as a common joke. Women view long queues as everything from a small irritant to a persistent form of gender discrimination.
But “potty parity” laws and ever-changing plumbing codes promise relief. And in no place in New York City will those changes be felt more than in the restroom queues at the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets’ Citi Field, if things go according to plan.
It may be the biggest moment “for potty parity that we have seen, to have two big facilities open at the same time, and all these restrooms open at once”, says Kathryn Anthony, professor of architecture, University of Illinois, and a board member of the American Restroom Association. Roughly 1,500 new toilet fixtures (water closets in plumbing parlance and urinals for men) await fans at the two ballparks, about a 30% increase at Yankee Stadium and a 10% increase at Citi Field, which holds about 12,000 fewer fans than its predecessor Shea Stadium did.
More toilets are on the way for football fans, too. About 1,350 fixtures are planned at the new stadium for the Giants and Jets, scheduled to open in the New Jersey Meadowlands in 2010.
Potty parity does not always mean that there will be the same number of toilets for women and men. Parity is measured by waiting times. Studies show that women take about twice as long as men in a restroom. The reasons vary, from the obvious (the need to secure themselves inside a stall, shed more clothes and use toilet paper) to the not-so-obvious (menstrual cycles and the increased likelihood, compared to men, of ushering small children).
Groups including the American Restroom Association and World Toilet Organization view quick access to clean public toilets as no laughing matter. People with medical problems, including bladder or bowel dysfunction, may not be able to wait. Long waits can exacerbate other issues, including urinary tract infections.
For years, women have dealt most with the consequences, if not the indignity, of waiting in long queues.
New York City passed a law in 2005 requiring that all new or significantly renovated places of public assembly (concert halls, arenas, Broadway theatres, stadiums, among others) have two women’s toilet fixtures for every one devoted to men. About half of US states and many municipalities have similar laws with varying ratios designed to offset the extra time women take in the restroom and to slowly undo decades of male-dominated design and construction.
“Until relatively recently, most architects, contractors, engineers, building-code officials and clients were not concerned about this issue,” Anthony says. “These were very male-dominated professions and still are. They rarely contacted women about their restroom needs.”
New York’s law came as the city was overhauling its plumbing and building codes, much of which dated to 1968. The city based its plumbing code on the 2003 version of the International Plumbing Code, which has specific requirements for toilet fixtures for various types of buildings and occupancies. Almost always, women are to be supplied with more. But since most assembly halls in the city are decades old, they generally lack in women’s restrooms. New construction provides a rare chance to make it right. The new Yankee Stadium, with a capacity of 52,325, needed a minimum of 358 women’s toilets and 176 men’s fixtures, of which no more than half could be urinals, as per the New York City department of buildings.
Generally, once minimum requirements are reached, the mix of toilets can be tailored to the building’s needs. Studies show that baseball crowds tend to have slightly more men than women. Stadium builders tend to meet the requirements and add a bunch of urinals. Football crowds tend to be overwhelmingly male (the Giants estimate 70% at Giants Stadium), which is why most of the extra fixtures are for men.
What is the right ratio? Anthony, author of Designing For Diversity: Gender, Race And Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession, wrote two years ago that restrooms “remain among the more tangible relics of gender discrimination” and thinks it is at least 2:1. “Ideally,” Anthony says, “nobody should have to wait at all.”
No, she does not live in New York.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Sun, May 24 2009. 09 03 PM IST