Women can’t win when it comes to loo queues Caroline Criado Perez The Sunday Times 06.10.19

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If you are a woman, you know about the tyranny of the lavatory queue. We are used to queueing when we go out. We are used to queuing at airports, train stations, shopping centres, sports matches. You name it, we’ve queued there.

Men who go out with women are used to waiting for women, who are usually still in the queue by the time a man has gone into the gents, done his business, swanned out to the bar, and enjoyed a stiff drink and some peanuts.

As a woman, I dream of drinks in the interval at the theatre. The reality is that I, and most of my female friends, usually don’t even risk a drink before the show in the hope of avoiding the most boring part of any night out. Either that or, as we sense the first half drawing to a close, we are no longer paying attention to the show. We are primed, like sprinters on the blocks, to escape just before the lights go up.

If there’s one thing I will say for the inevitable queue for the ladies, it’s that there’s nothing quite like the smug satisfaction of beating it.

Still, I’d rather it didn’t exist at all. So you can imagine my delight when the Old Vic in south London announced that it was raising £100,000 to carry out extensive refurbishment works, the centrepiece of which was the promise of “more ladies’ loos”. The theatre released a video full of actresses reading out audience feedback. Women were tired of spending the whole interval in a queue.

The oasis of interval drinks seemed almost in sight . . . only for it to dissolve cruelly into a mirage when the Old Vic announced the details of its refurbishment. Rather than doubling the number of women’s loos, the theatre has got rid of them altogether. All the facilities at the Old Vic are now gender-neutral.

Except they aren’t, because bodies aren’t gender-neutral and female ones can’t, on the whole, use urinals. Of which there are 15 in the same lavatory block as a number of cubicles that women can, in theory, use but in practice don’t, because most women don’t want to queue up alongside men urinating. I’m reliably informed by men that they don’t want us there either.

So what is the state of the Old Vic’s “gender-neutral” provision? Men have access to 42 loos of one kind or another and, practically speaking, women have access to 24. And this is a problem, because women need more, not fewer, loos than men.

In the course of writing my book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, I calculated that women take up to 2.3 times as long as men to use the lavatory, for a variety of reasons. Women are more likely to be accompanied by children, or older and disabled people. Then there’s the 20%–25% of women of childbearing age who may be on their period at any one time, and therefore needing to change a tampon or a sanitary pad. Pregnant women and those suffering from a urinary tract infection (which is eight times more common in women) will need to visit the loo more frequently. This all adds up.

I commend the Old Vic for including gender-neutral facilities. These are important for all sorts of reasons, from care-giving to people who feel uncomfortable in single-sex bathrooms. Yet many people also feel uncomfortable in gender-neutral facilities for reasons ranging from awkwardness, to religion, to fear. And those needs should be catered for as well.

The frustrating thing is that it would be easy to do this: all the theatre needs to do is label some of its cubicle-only lavatories as women-only. You have urinals for men, gender-neutral for people who need it and women-only for women who need that. Problem solved.

Women in Britain and America fought hard for our right to our own loos in public spaces: campaigners saw it as fundamental to women’s access to those places and they were right. All around the world, women still suffer for lack of women-only lavatories. I have reported on women in Mumbai slums, in refugee camps, in Afghanistan, all of whom faced sexualised violence simply for lack of access to safe, sex-segregated facilities.

Look, I never asked to become head of feminism’s lavatory division. I never expected that one of the greatest effects of writing Invisible Women would be that women would start sending me photos of themselves stuck in the inevitable queue for the ladies’. But here we are. And when feminism calls, I answer. Rather like I wish I could answer whenever nature calls.


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