One of the most subtle - yet powerful - forms of gender discrimination is inadequate restrooms, according to Kathryn Anthony, a professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois. Anthony, whose research focus is environment and behavior, recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in support of a bill, H.R. 4869, the bipartisan Restroom Gender Parity in Federal Buildings Act, which would set strict building codes with regard to restroom facilities for men and women provided in federal buildings. Anthony spoke with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest about the bill and the ubiquitous problem of potty parity.
What are the key points of the proposed legislation?
If passed in its current form, the legislation would affect only newly constructed or newly renovated federal buildings, and would revise building standards so that the number of toilets in women's restrooms would equal or exceed the total number of toilets (including urinals) in men's restrooms. At least 21 states and municipalities - including New York City and Honolulu - have already passed some form of potty parity legislation, but it's been slow going and a contentious issue in some places. In the past some female legislators were ridiculed for taking up the issue. U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns, of New York, introduced the bill, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Darrell Issa, of California; Yvette Clarke, of New York; and Pete Visclosky, of Indiana.
It's significant that the issue is being discussed for the first time at the federal level. It's likely that Congress will vote on it sometime this summer. Unlike the Americans With Disabilities Act, it wouldn't mandate retrofitting existing federal buildings but would require that the new standards be applied when a building is renovated or constructed, or when determining criteria for leasing federal buildings.
What are some of the problems caused by inadequate restroom facilities?
Females are conditioned to "hold it in," which medical literature indicates is not good for them and leads to adverse health conditions such as urinary tract infections. Women will often avoid eating and drinking at events because they know they'll have to wait in long lines to use public restrooms.
Rep. Towns, who chairs the House committee that held the hearing, spoke about attending a play with his spouse who missed the beginning of the second act and had trouble finding her theater seat in the dark because of the long line at the restroom.
But it's not just a women's issue; it affects men and children as well. Many places don't provide family or unisex restrooms that enable spouses who are caregivers for their husbands or wives or parents with young children to enter with them and assist them. Oftentimes, men's restrooms don't provide infant changing stations.
And there are privacy issues that affect men - such as not providing adequate partitions between urinals or between the restroom door and the urinals to shield users from view. While men's rooms sometimes provide one lowered urinal for little boys, women's restrooms rarely provide a lowered toilet for little girls. Outside the U.S., there are other issues, such as a lack of sanitary facilities and requiring people to pay to use restrooms.
What sparked your interest in the issue of potty parity?
It became a significant issue to me in early 2001 when my late husband was ill with cancer and in a wheelchair during the last week of his life. I could get him to the doors of public men's restrooms, but couldn't go in with him to assist him.
A two-week segment of a course that I teach, a seminar called "Gender and Race in Contemporary Architecture," is devoted to restroom design. The class tours some of the restroom facilities on campus, and it's always an eye-opener for students to see the opposite sex's bathrooms.
Restrooms communicate a lot about a society and how it treats us. Hidden biases in the designs of products, spaces and places cause minor irritations, major frustrations and even serious injuries, disadvantaging people physiologically, psychologically or economically.
Aside from speaking at the congressional hearing, what other work are you doing in this area?
During 2009-10 academic year, I co-chaired, with Gale Summerfield, who is the director of the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program, the provost's Gender Equity Council here on campus. One of our goals was to work with the Facilities and Services Division to propose design standards that don't disadvantage people. The committee looked at a variety of design issues, including potty parity issues, lactation spaces, and equipment design issues such as lecterns that aren't adjustable to accommodate speakers of varying heights. If the committee's design recommendations are adopted, we believe that the U. of I. would be one of the first universities to adopt policies addressing these types of design issues.