Want to help fight sexism? Start in the bathroom

Gender neutral bathrooms can make school life more equal for students, says Gloria Thorn, Shareholder at Washware Essentials

Recent times have seen huge advances in gender equality. Thanks to shifting cultural attitudes both in schools and in wider society, girls are now closer than ever to competing on a level playing field with their male peers – but sadly, in many respects, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Independent schools play a huge role in giving female pupils the best start in life, but the latest battle for gender equality isn’t taking place in the science lab or on the playing field: it’s in the bathroom.

Different for girls

It stands to reason that girls need to go to the bathroom more frequently than boys. For one thing, girls tend to have smaller bladders than their male counterparts, which means needing to pee more often. Then there’s the matter of periods, which obviously aren’t an issue for male pupils.

It also takes girls a longer time to go to the bathroom, not only because they pee sitting down, but also because girls’ clothes tend to be more restrictive – after all, boys usually don’t have tights to contend with.

Size matters

So here’s the problem: despite the fact that girls take longer and more frequent trips to the bathroom, boys’ and girls’ washrooms are traditionally the same size, with the same number of stalls. The result? Long queues for the girls’ room, which can be annoying or even downright distressing – especially for younger pupils who find it more difficult to control their bladders.

The first solution is fairly obvious: build larger female bathrooms with more stalls. This simple step will surely go some way towards banishing the dreaded toilet queue, if nothing else.

The second solution is a little more leftfield: female urinals. Devices like the Shewee have long been a fixture at music festivals and among outdoor enthusiasts, but now they’re poised to make their way indoors to a more permanent setting. Unlike male urinals, fixed female urinals are a relatively recent innovation, but you can expect to see more and more of them in the coming years.

Mixed bathrooms

Enlarging female toilet facilities is certainly a start, but in a world where gender roles are becoming more and more fluid, you may well ask yourself: do schools need gender-specific bathrooms at all?

On the one hand, it would be much simpler (and cheaper) to build a single bathroom that accommodates all pupils. It would also make matters a lot less vexing for transgender students and their teachers. Outside of school, unisex bathrooms would do away with problem of parents or guardians entering the ‘wrong’ bathroom in order to accompany a child of the opposite sex.

Then again, the bathroom is one of our most intimate spaces. Many children feel uncomfortable doing their business around people of the same gender, let alone the opposite. There are also concerns in some quarters that mixed gender bathrooms could lead to an increase in sexual assaults.

Perhaps not surprisingly, proposals for unisex bathrooms in schools haven’t always been met with open arms. A London state primary recently made the headlines after an online petition opposing their use of gender-neutral toilets attracted almost 700 signatures.

Changing times

Independent schools are well placed to lead the battle for gender equality – and who knows? Maybe one day, gender-segregated bathrooms will come to be seen as old-fashioned, with unisex cubicles and communal sinks the norm. Either way, it will be interesting to see how female urinals and larger washrooms improve the day-to-day lives of girls, both in schools and in the wider world.

Gloria Thorn is a shareholder for online commercial sanitary ware supplier, Washware Essentials. As well as a successful career on the NHS frontline, Gloria has more than 30 years’ experience in the educational sanitary ware market.


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