Food & Culture

The Surprising Reason the Women's Restroom Line Is Always Longer

Every time crowds of people congregate, you'll see longer lines at the women's bathroom than at the men's. According to experts, women can wait as much as 34 times longer to use a public restroom than men do. So that means while a man could hop over to a urinal in two minutes or so — and get back in enough time to catch the seventh inning stretch or the keynote address — his wife or girlfriend could end up waiting more than an hour. But contrary to sexist ideas about what women do in the restroom, the line doesn't appear because women are busy chatting with each other or reapplying their makeup. So what's the deal, and how can we shorten the line?

Why Must Women Wait?

Well, there are a few reasons, and they start with the biological. Women menstruate, which can add to bathroom time. Women also have to remove more layers of clothes in order to use the restroom and they don't have the option of urinals, so they always have to enter a stall. As a result, men spend an average of one minute at the toilet while women spend an average of 1 minute and 30 seconds, according to a recent Ghent University study.

Then, there's also the fact that women are also far more likely than men to have kids or elderly people with them — people they need to help, which could slow them down.

Sexism in Architecture

According to Clara Greed, a British urban-planning scholar, the problem of women's restrooms has been built-in since the 19th century. From the start of city planning, men's toilets were prioritized because men were seen as important to the industrial economy, while women's access wasn't considered essential to the structure of a city. In other words, the women's line isn't just a problem at the movie theater or baseball game. It's existed for centuries. For women, building public toilets has always been "seen as an extra, as a luxury, or as problematic in other respects."

In many of today's buildings, the men's and women's rooms are the same size. Even worse, because urinals take up less space than stalls do, men's rooms often have more toilet facilities than ladies' rooms, which contributes to even less waiting time for men.

Couldn't buildings just add more women's toilets, you ask? Yes, of course, they could, and that would solve the problem pretty easily. Plumbing codes only require that each building have a minimum number of toilets for men and for women, so it's up to builders and building owners to go above and beyond that number.

And that's where the money comes in. "From an economic standpoint, it doesn't make much sense to increase the number of toilet fixtures if that's going to decrease the amount of rentable area in a building," said Christopher Chwedyk, a building-code consultant at the firm Burnham Nationwide, in an interview with The Atlantic.

In some cities and states, lawmakers have started to demand builders plan for restroom equality. In 2005, New York City passed a bill that required newly constructed public spaces to have a 2-to-1 ratio of women's to men's toilets. But even that bill doesn't apply to buildings built before 2005, so most public spaces still have no incentive to provide more restrooms for women.

Let's All Wait Together

One possible solution to the problem of "potty parity": make everyone wait in the same line for the same restrooms. Joel Sanders, an architect who teaches at Yale, says gender-neutral facilities could solve a lot of problems. Sanders thinks that if we in the United States adopted European rows of unisex stalls with communal sinks, many of us would be safer and get out of the restroom faster. Single-occupancy gender-neutral restrooms work too and are especially convenient for families and those who require the help of caregivers.

Still, all of those solutions only work for new construction. What to do with the old university building built in 1950? Some of these building managers have started converting men's restrooms into "all-gender" restrooms. All it takes is changing a sign. Surprisingly, on the campuses where this has been done, it seems to go pretty well.

And, let's face it: When the line is long and women have to wait, they often end up using the men's room anyway. Maybe "potty parity" will come when we accept that, fix the signs, and move on.

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There's a fascinating history to the public toilet. Read all about it in "Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing," edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk October 10, 2019

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