Toilets for everyone – moving to gender neutral bathrooms in our London office
Everyone, everywhere has the right to access safe and appropriate toilets. This year, as global awareness rose of issues people who don’t associate with simply male or female genders face when using public toilets, WaterAid decided to look close to home in ensuring everyone’s rights are met.
Over the past year we have increased our awareness and understanding of some of the issues and obstacles to responding to nature’s call facing gender minorities – that is, people who identify themselves as transgender, intersex or just neither completely male nor female.
We have seen stories emerging from around the world of some of these challenges as well as of demands raised by transgender activists and communities and the solutions being instigated. For example Bhopal in India, Vancouver in Canada and Brighton in the UK, to name a few, have seen state or local governments recognise the challenges and respond by creating or adapting public toilets to have gender-neutral toilets or separate cubicles for ‘third gender’ or transgender people.
WaterAid’s review on linkages between sanitation work and transgender and intersex people found scant evidence of action globally. This prompted us to help convene an informal network of practitioners and academics from the WASH and gender minorities sectors, to discuss, research and explore further the needs of transgender and non-binary people regarding public toilets.
It has been encouraging to see that there are many others interested in and already working or beginning to work on this issue, and we have been able to connect with others with whom we are now collaborating.
Equity begins at home
All of this triggered reflections at WaterAid about the toilet set up in our own offices. What could we do to be more inclusive of staff or visitors who don’t identify as men or women?
There had also been conversations about how we can better manage our bathroom facilities. Occupancy in the London office has grown over the past 2 years, and, with WaterAids 70/30 female to male gender split, the female bathrooms were being overused compared with the gents’. This was not only causing bottlenecks at key times, but also more maintenance issues in the female bathrooms.
So we decided to put our talk/research into action by trialling gender-neutral bathrooms in WaterAid’s London office for three months. We have individual toilet cubicles with floor to ceiling doors and walls and a basin inside, so it was easy to migrate to gender-neutral bathrooms without negatively impacting privacy, which was one of the key concerns of staff.
In September we removed the ‘male’ and ‘female’ signs and replaced them with gender-neutral signage. We also installed sanitary bins in the former men’s bathrooms, and new hygiene signage to encourage better bathroom etiquette.
It was important for us to engage with our staff before the trial began, so we could both gauge initial views and share our plans to monitor staff experience before, during and at the end of the trial, to enable us to make an informed decision about the changes and solve any issues.
The pre-trial survey showed that over half of the staff were supportive of a change to gender neutral bathrooms (53%) and more than three in four for were happy to trial it (78%). However, there were some key concerns around the actual need to make the change, fears around the reduction in privacy from sharing units, and, especially among women, worries about the ‘differing hygiene practices of men and women’ and the likelihood of hygiene levels dropping.
At the start of the trial we instituted a mechanism for staff to provide anonymous feedback throughout the three months. In December we will capture final feedback before deciding whether to keep the toilets gender neutral, in consultation with the landlord.
Getting it right for everyone, everywhere
The current infrastructure and working environment in our office makes it ideal for gender-neutral toilets. But we have learned from others’ experiences that gender-neutral toilets are not the only option and sometimes even not a good idea in attempting to make toilets inclusive and safe for everyone. For example, in our beyond the binary blog we talked about how more sophisticate solutions are needed in situations where there violence against women or transgender people in public spaces is common.
Even where that is not the case, a jump to gender-neutral facilities might not be as straightforward as it might seem. The tumultuous experience in London’s Barbican Centre, where they tried to retrofit gender-neutral toilets into old infrastructure (including urinals!), is a good example of this.
So far, this has been a good lesson in the fact that respecting and ensuring human rights might be easy to write about on paper, but doing our part to ensure they are realised for everyone can sometimes be more complicated, even uncomfortable, or require us to change our own habitual and deeply personal practices. It’s important to trial, learn and improve our approaches to making sure that everyone at WaterAid can access appropriate sanitation facilities. It’s the human right of everyone here to do so, just as it is for everyone, everywhere.