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The complex history of campus restrooms

Though it may seem surprising, from 1900 to 1930, the ratio of men and women attending college in the United States was roughly equal.

Despite that early equal footing on college and university campuses, planning for female students—for restrooms, living spaces and athletics facilities—was an afterthought as the gender mix of student populations ebbed and flowed.

Now, with gender definitions becoming more fluid and Generation Z more comfortable with gender nonconformity and shared spaces, university infrastructure is adjusting to meet their changing sensibilities.

It’s worth a review of recent history to remember how we got here:

As GIs returned home from World War II and began attending U.S. colleges and universities, the gender make-up of higher education students rapidly changed. In 1947, imbalances reached an all-time high, as undergraduate men outnumbered undergraduate women 2.3 to 1. Over its 175-year history, the University of Utah was no different; it would take decades for the number of undergraduate women attending the U to come close to matching the number of men.

As the number of women attending increased, changes were made to accommodate them, including creating more equitable living spaces and access to restrooms. The U’s first women’s dorm, Carlson Hall, one of the first dormitories for women built in the Western U.S., was built in 1938 at the corner of 400 South and University Street to address challenges women were having finding housing near campus.

“It’s safe to say that in terms of serving female students, it took a little while for academia to get up to speed,” said Charles Shepherd, campus historian and architect. “It wasn’t until toward the end of the 20th century that designs for new campus buildings worked to create numerical parity between the number of men’s and women’s restrooms.”

In the years since 1947, the number of undergraduate women attending college in the United States has steadily increased. Now, women comprise almost 60% the undergraduate population in the U.S. and men just over 40%.  The student body at the U is split almost equally between men and women.

Though significant progress has been made to equalize facilities and services, there’s still room for college campuses, including the U, to make changes to better serve their students of all genders. That includes reimagining how campus restrooms are designed and configured.

Recently, the state of Utah adopted new building codes that allow public buildings to have up to 50% of a building’s toilet fixtures in all-gender restrooms. And during the 2024 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill restricting which changing rooms Trans people can use in public buildings, including those on the U’s campus. Learn more about this legislation and its implications for campus here.

Currently, there are more than 80 all-gender restrooms on the U’s campus, and this past fall the first multi-stall inclusive restrooms opened in the Union Building and Marriott Library. Despite these improvements, restroom parity on campus still is a complicated issue.

Following World War II, the U’s student body grew rapidly and building on campus exploded. During this construction boom, four of the U’s buildings for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, majors were built— the South Biology Building, the Henry Eyring Chemistry Building, the James Fletcher Physics Building and the Joseph Merrill Engineering Building. According to an analysis done by Thanasy Vilaipan and James Shultz, two drafting technicians at the U, three of the four were built with more men’s than women’s restrooms, and though additions have been made over the years, two of the buildings still have more men’s than women’s restrooms.

However, because of the way buildings are typically designed, having an equal number of men’s and women’s restrooms does not mean the number of opportunities to use the restroom is equal when facilities are segregated. An analysis of select buildings on the U’s campus shows that the number of combined stalls and urinals in men’s restrooms is typically higher than the number of stalls in women’s restrooms.

The situation is not unique to the U. According to the 2019 book “Invisible Women: Data bias in a world designed for men,” author Caroline Criado-Perez explains that most often men’s and women’s public restrooms are allotted an equal amount of square footage. Because men’s restrooms traditionally include a mix of stalls and more compact urinals, more people can relieve themselves at one time in the men’s restroom than in the women’s restroom.

She also notes that statistically, women take up to 2.3 times as long as men to use the toilet. Combined with other factors like age, disability, menstruation, pregnancy and childcare, it’s no wonder women’s restrooms are so much more likely to have a line than men’s, Criado-Perez concludes.

New designs for all-gender restrooms can play a key part in addressing the disparity.

According to Katie Valdez, the program coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center, all-gender restrooms are an essential part of supporting a sense of belonging and well-being for students, staff, and faculty at the U.

“Historically, gendered restrooms created unnecessary challenges for parents and caregivers who are looking after someone of a different gender,” Valdez said.

At the same time, segregating bathrooms based on binary understandings of gender has led to harassment and gender-based violence against gender non-conforming and Trans individuals, she added. “Restrooms on our campus should be safe and accessible to everyone, regardless of their gender identity.”