Gender-neutral toilets have gained enormous popularity in recent years, with high profile employers such as the BBC, Channel 4 and numerous well-known banks all opting for the unisex bathroom approach. And it isn’t a peculiarly British phenomenon; international giants such as Google and Facebook have also made their WCs universally accessible.
Part of their popularity stems from the desire to cut waiting times, particularly for women. Anyone who has visited a theatre or any similar public venue will be familiar with the sight of long queues outside the ladies’ while the door to the gents’ swings merrily open and shut. One key objective of non-segregated bathrooms is to equalise those waiting times and, in principle, they should do exactly that.
Another reason for their increasing use is the desire to create safer, more usable spaces for transgender people who might otherwise find segregated facilities uncomfortable.
However, a worthy motive only counts for so much. If a gender-neutral washroom is to work effectively, it must be properly designed for all users, and it must also meet all the appropriate legal requirements. In this article we’ll look at each of these issues in turn.
Benefits of Unisex Washrooms
A 2017 investigation by the Guardian newspaper noted that toilet occupancy times averaged around two minutes for men and three minutes for women; a discrepancy that can quickly add up to long queues when WCs are in high demand. Using computer modelling, the newspaper concluded that unisex toilets delivered an appreciable time-saving for women, and only a relatively modest increase in waiting times for men.
Importantly, going gender-neutral worked effectively whether the premises had just a single stall or multiple cubicles. For example, one of the computer models featured a theatre-type venue with one 6-cubicle washroom for men and an identical one for women, collectively accommodating 300 users. Making both bathrooms unisex meant that men’s waiting times rose by just 9 seconds, while for women, waiting times fell by over 7 minutes. Across all the different models, taking account of footfall and capacity, there was a significant net improvement in waiting times.
In a business environment, any such reduction has obvious implications in terms of productivity, and for publicly accessible venues, it can translate into an altogether better user experience.
Washroom Design and Gender Equality
To many young people, gender-separated bathrooms may be starting to feel rather antiquated; a cultural relic that has outlived its usefulness. Certainly, society has changed markedly in recent generations, so it’s perhaps logical that washroom designs should change accordingly. For example, there is no longer a blind assumption that when a couple has a baby, the mother alone will dress, feed and change it. In that context, a gender-neutral washroom makes good sense; baby-changing facilities can be used by men and women alike.
A similar principle applies to parents taking children of the opposite sex to the bathroom. In a gender-neutral washroom, there need be no quandary about a child’s age and whether it’s still appropriate to take the child into the toilets. The same is true of people with limited mobility who rely on a carer of the opposite sex.
Women’s toilets are invariably fitted with disposal facilities for sanitary products but the same is seldom true of men’s toilets. Nevertheless, it’s estimated that 24% of older people are affected by urinary incontinence and, in the face of an ageing population, the need for male sanitary disposal is only likely to increase. In a gender-neutral washroom, this challenge is more easily addressed.
One of the most widely-discussed benefits of unisex bathrooms is they create a much more accessible environment for trans-people, for whom single-gender bathrooms can create feelings of awkwardness and alienation. This is undoubtedly true, and it has been one of the strongest driving forces behind his continuing trend.
In cases where a new building is designed with a single, large unisex bathroom, placing all the facilities together can also make for more efficient cleaning, servicing and maintenance, which could ultimately deliver appreciable cost savings.
Disadvantages of Unisex Washrooms
There are unquestionably benefits to unisex washrooms but they also have their critics. Some women’s groups have suggested that they take away potential ‘safe spaces’ for women, and that they could create environments in which people could more easily be harassed.
Amongst some traditionally-minded people, using a gender-neutral washroom might cause feelings of embarrassment. The same might sometimes be true of younger children in primary schools; and in secondary schools, the lack of staff supervision could potentially give rise to problems such as bullying, abuse and other inappropriate behaviour.
Employers sometimes face a legal tightrope when it comes to washroom design. Those who segregate by gender may face claims of discrimination, but those who opt for a unisex layout could face criticism from people with strong religious convictions that prevent them from sharing toilet facilities with people of the opposite sex.
The reality is that unisex bathrooms are a still-developing trend and, in some respects, regulatory frameworks have yet to catch up.
Required Unisex Washroom Facilities
Good washroom design can play an important role in getting through the regulatory minefield. To begin with, it’s useful to review official guidance about the facilities that washroom providers are required to provide. In section 3 of its workplace facilities guidance, the Health & Safety Executive lists a series of requirements, which include, amongst others, the need to have:
- enough toilets and washbasins for those expected to use them
- separate facilities for men and women or, alternatively, rooms with lockable doors
- a supply of toilet paper and, for female employees, somewhere to dispose of sanitary dressings
- hot and cold running water
- enough soap or other washing agents
- a basin large enough to wash hands and forearms if necessary
- a way of drying hands, such as paper towels or a hot-air dryer
The same guidance also sets out the required numbers of basins and cubicles that should be provided, according to the expected number of users. More guidance on regulations can be found in our Guide to Washroom Products.
For unisex bathrooms, some common sense additions might include full-height cubicle doors and walls to preserve privacy, and separately screened areas in bathrooms where urinals are still in use.
Another solution is to create self-contained washroom cubicles, complete with WC, disposal facilities and an integrated wash-station. Similar to a bathroom on a modern train, this approach obviates many of the privacy and accessibility issues associated with other bathroom designs.
Washroom Fittings and Good Hygiene
Functionally, there is no difference between the facilities required in male or female washrooms, so unisex washrooms present no special challenges. The most important requirements are to ensure that those facilities promote good hygiene and that they are easily usable and accessible.
If a key reason for choosing a unisex design is to reduce waiting times – e.g. in a busy leisure venue – then an additional design consideration should be speed of use. Self-contained wash-stations are very effective in this respect, but separate washroom accessories such as soap-dispensers, paper towel dispensers and hand dryers can be quick to use if the room is sensibly laid out, providing adequate numbers of facilities for the volume of users.
Hand-drying can sometimes be a bottle-neck area, so if speed is a concern, it’s useful to consider high-speed electric dryers, paper towel dispensers or perhaps an adequate combination of the two.
Expert Advice From Dudley Industries
For more advice or for help in choosing washroom fittings for unisex washrooms, please don’t hesitate to contact Dudley Industries.