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Opinion: We need to address the problem of bathroom equity

We assume that equality means giving everyone the exact same things regardless of their starting points. Men and women do not have the same needs when it comes to bathrooms

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An entrance to a men’s restroom on Concourse A at the new Salt Lake City International Airport is pictured on Monday, Oct. 22, 2018.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

I have traveled extensively in the past few months, including eight international airports home and abroad, and in the process was reminded of an issue that needs addressing: bathroom equity. The current allotment of restroom space for men and women is not working. This is not just an airport problem, but a problem found in many other types of public spaces.

In most public spaces, the square footage of men’s and women’s restrooms are the same or “equal.” Society often assumes that if you give everyone exactly the same things, that everyone’s needs will be met in the same ways. This is what many call “equality,” which is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights and opportunities. However, there is an erroneous assumption that everyone is starting from the same place or has the same needs. Obviously, this is not always the case, particularly when it comes to biological sex differences. 

Let’s look at the potty problem and compare the lines to the bathrooms for women and men. Last week, I was flying back to Utah and was at an airport where I saw people — mostly men — laughing at the crazy long women’s bathroom lines throughout the airport. The first time I needed to use the restroom, I waited 36 minutes, while my husband walked right in and out in 1-2 minutes. During my wait, I heard a man say, with a smile, to his girlfriend who was standing in front of me, “I cannot help it that I’m a man. It is your fault you are a woman.” By the time I boarded the plane, the women’s line was down the hall even further, and I estimated it would be 45-60-minutes for the women waiting to be able to take care of a basic biological need. And — to no one’s surprise — there was still no visible line to the men’s restroom. 

This is a regular occurrence for women at many public spaces throughout the world, including here in Utah. When the world is designed for men and there is an assumption that everything will work the same for women, there are problems. As Caroline Criado Perez stated in her book, “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” “When planners fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default. The reality is that half the global population has a female body.”

In Utah, we prefer the word “equality” over “equity.” Having exactly the same space allocation for men and women is “equality,” but this doesn’t meet the needs of men and women “equally.”

Anatomical differences between men and women result in women needing more time in bathrooms. Women need stalls, and we need to occupy those stalls longer than men. These needs aren’t because we are slow or high maintenance — it is a function of anatomy. In addition to normal bathroom needs, women often deal with menstruation (that could require additional time) and are more likely to bring children with them who also need to relieve themselves and may need help wiping and getting dressed. And finally, because stalls take up more space than urinals, it means that in a building with equal square footage per restroom, a women’s restroom will have less “facilities” than a men’s restroom. 

Giving everyone the same thing does not always serve people equally.

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Women are obviously disadvantaged in this example. Most men fail to see their expeditious bathroom use as a “privilege,” but it is. What is needed in this situation is “equity,” which focuses more on giving individuals and groups what they need and making sure everyone has access and opportunities, while realizing that not everyone needs the same things.

Restroom equity is just one example. Community and state decision makers must be more thoughtful and intentional about meeting the needs of all genders in Utah. Women are tired of waiting for relief! 

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.