Gender-neutral restrooms require new (choice) architecture

Multi gender bathroom signage in airport.jpg

Luc Bovens (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Alexandru Marcoci (London School of Economics and Political Science)

It is becoming a cliché that bathrooms are in need of a re-think. Joel Sanders quips that “the ‘default user’ of architecture is basically a white, able-bodied, cisgendered male, and we tend to disregard other, non-conforming bodies.” His initiative, Stalled!, is making some innovative bathroom design suggestions. In an earlier BPP blog Maya Bar-Hillel and Cass Sunsteinexplore issues of navigability in hotel bathrooms and notice how small changes in the way everyday objects are designed can make that space more inclusive.

Gender-neutral restrooms improve the access problem of transgender people.  Moreover, they solve the potty parity problem: by just changing the labels of the existing facilities, waiting times for men and women will be the same. The reduction in waiting time for women is drastic whereas for men there is barely a difference. So, what’s not to love about them? There are both men and women who say that they simply feel uncomfortable responding to the call of nature in close proximity with the other gender. To overcome this discomfort, we will need a few changes both in design and choice architecture.

First, stalls in a multi-stall facility should have full length doors so that they come to resemble a single-stall. This is what was done in the Home Office in the UK when they introduced their first gender-neutral toilets.

Second, it is not clear that we can keep urinals in gender-neutral toilets, at least not at their current locations. Some women will refuse to use facilities with urinals in them, as we saw in the Barbican. The Swedes, who were early pioneers with gender-neutral toilets, mostly did away with them. If there is sufficient space in new-builds, we may be able to place them behind a privacy wall, but even so, only experimentation can tell whether women will be accepting of such facilities.

Third, we can make the centrally-placed facilities gender-neutral whilst retaining a few segregated facilities that will typically require a short walk, perhaps even going to a different floor. Choice is respected, but by adding a small cost on the use of segregated facilities we nudge people to overcome their discomfort.

Another source of discomfort to women is that gender-neutral toilets may be filthy. The main concern is that the toilet seats and the floors are doused with urine because men fail to take aim. There are two ways to correct this. The better way is for men to sit down on the toilet seat to urinate. But this may meet with some resistance. The second-best way is to improve men’s aim or to get them to clean up after themselves.

How can we nudge men to sit down? We could appeal to social norms. According to a 2007 poll of married couples in Japan, almost half of the husbands sit down. Male toilet practices on the continent and in the Nordic countries are shiftingtoward sitting down as well. Studies in the UK are lacking. We need some simple polls and all we need is numbers to let men know that they are not alone. The campaign in Germany has taken a comical turn: Some toilet seats are outfitted with a device called Spuk(or ghost). If one tries to raise the toilet seat Spukstarts scolding: “Excuse me, but there’s a penalty for peeing while standing in this house, you’d better not risk any problems and sit down!”

We could also appeal to self-interest. There is research showing that sitting down reduces prostate problems. Some creative minds in an advertisement company could certainly find ways to convey this message to the masses.

If any of the above fails, we will need a plan B and try to improve men’s aim. One of the best-known nudges is the image of a life-size fly in the urinals in Schiphol airport. This image improved men’s aim and reduced spillage by 80 per cent: The Dutch have become sensitive to animal rights and have now replaced the flies with golf holes. We could insert the very same image in toilet bowls. We could also design toilets with seats that rise automatically. This is what Stalled! is proposing. It would be an imposition on women, for the sole reason that men are too lazy to lift the seat. It may be objectionable on these grounds, but it is one way to keep the seats dry in a blighted world.

Nudging to overcome discomfort raises two issues. First, some discomfort may be beyond nudging. There are about four million people in the UK who suffer from paruresis, that is, the inability to urinate in the vicinity of other people. It is not known whether and to what extent their problems are compounded in gender-neutral settings. This issue requires more research. Second, some people may consider this discomfort not just queasiness, but rather, an expression of the virtue of modesty. Hence it is to be cherished and respected rather than nudged into oblivion. This is a deep disagreement interwoven in the culture wars. It requires careful treading and respectful dialogue, with the aim of accommodating alternative conceptions of the good.

Finally, there is not much reliable data on safety in gender-neutral facilities. Many people are concerned that they will increase sexual harassment and sexual assault. Here, too, there may be a design solution. We can re-imagine bathrooms as open-plan spaces and remove the outer door. This design strategy has been proposed as a way of combating bullying in schools as well as a way of reducing violence in public restrooms. Moreover we need to pick the locations carefully when rolling out gender-neutral restrooms. Theatres may be the first candidates. High density usage is protective and the potty parity problem is most acute. Office buildings may be next in line. Some locations may forever remain segregated, say, train stations that are deserted in the late-night hours and establishments in which alcohol is consumed.

Responding to the concerns raised by gender-neutral toilets calls for a mixture of new design, nudging, and dialogue. Some are easy enough to solve. Some are much deeper. Solutions will need to be sensitive to local environments and cultures. As with so many policy issues, they will need to be rolled out in a piecemeal fashion following consultation and checked by careful monitoring.