The Sheldonian is right to plan a gender-neutral toilet, but it’s doing it wrong

The Sheldonian Theatre plans to install a new gender-neutral toilet, rightly in line with the Equality Act 2010. On the face of it, it sounds like a fantastic step forward in battling structural transphobia. Except for one small overlooked detail: they plan to convert the women’s facilities, not the men’s.

The Sheldonian plans a full refurbishment of the basement toilets. The “female toilets will be altered to provide a new gender-neutral toilet with independent access from the corridor” that is “safe, inclusive and accessible promoting health, and well-being”. The male toilets will simply be reshuffled to “improve use of space”.

Why is this a problem? Let me explain. The Sheldonian already has more toilets for men (11) than for women (9), despite women both taking up to 2.3x longer and needing to go more frequently. Converting a women’s toilet will only increase the facilities for men, while making women queue for even longer.

Existing 11 (8 urinals + 3 cubicles)9 (9 cubicles)0
Proposed10 (7 urinals + 3 cubicles)8 (8 cubicles)1

It’s easy to simply blame women for ‘taking too long’ and assume they are happily re-applying their mascara in the theatre interval. However, women make up the majority of the elderly and the disabled; are more likely to be caring for children, as well as disabled and elderly relatives; and are 8x more likely to suffer from UTIs. Pregnancy significantly reduces bladder capacity and 1/4 of women of childbearing age may be menstruating. Plus, the obvious: men can often simply unzip, whereas women often have to partially undress.

Yet public spaces still favour men over women — and it stems from a patriarchal inclination towards men’s needs as the norm, and women’s needs as trivial. Unsurprisingly, the decision-making committee is mostly men. If you have any doubts, then Caroline Criado PerezInvisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men will resolve them.

When approached for comment, Aric Barcena, the architect involved, replied:

“… the intervention with the smallest compromise was the submitted application. We considered all options; we looked into converting the men’s southeast toilet into a gender-neutral cubicle but we would have sacrificed the only WC available for men on the east side of the building.”

He seems to forget that gender-neutral toilets are for men, too — so is it really a “sacrifice”? Does access for women count for nothing?

The Sheldonian’s proposed position of
the gender-neutral toilet in the
ladies’ northeast corner.
One of my proposed positions of the
gender-neutral toilet in the men’s
northwest corner. Being symmetrical
to the ladies’ northeast corner, it shouldn’t be difficult.

As a general rule of thumb, for men and women to have equal wait times for toilets, women should have access to twice as many toilets as men. Entertainment venues are surely no stranger to the rush of dozens of women to the restroom in the interval, prioritising relieving themselves over stopping by at the bar for a G&T. Even the most oblivious man could not miss the cascade of frustrated women spilling out into the corridor bouncing up and down for ten minutes; meanwhile the men are in and out in two minutes flat, with ten minutes left to spare for a double.

In terms of provision, their proposal still offers 11 for men and 9 for women, with the difference of women now having to queue for longer. Know what a far better idea would be? To convert one of the men’s cubicles. Or, make half the men’s toilets gender-neutral; this would even out provision for men and women at 10 facilities each.

My own proposal would improve access for both women and transgender and non-binary people, instead of taking away already scarce facilities from 52% of the population. Their move is well-intended to advance the freedom of an oppressed minority group, but it is doing it wrong — and has ended up as accidental misogyny disguised as progression.

The Barbican Centre sparked public outrage by turning both the gents and ladies into gender-neutral toilets. The sign outside the men’s was changed to “gender neutral with urinals”, and the women’s toilets were marked as “gender neutral with cubicles”. The problem was that this only doubled the provision for men while only making women queue for longer, because most women find it difficult to use urinals. BBC journalist Samira Ahmed took to Twitter in 2017, tweeting “or just turn the gents into gender neutral loos. There’s NEVER such a queue there & you know it. Thank you.” and “Why do women lose our space to men!? All women can use ladies’ loos. This isn’t the USA.” Although the Sheldonian is not proposing making all their toilets gender-neutral, the point about making women queue for longer still stands.

The choice of gender-neutral toilets is a welcome development, certainly. As the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society states on their website, “having gender-neutral toilets is important for making sure that everyone feels safe to go to a toilet that welcomes their identity”. This complete refurbishment of the Sheldonian basement’s toilets should be seized as an opportunity to prioritise the evening out of facilities for cisgender, transgender and non-binary — not worsen the disparity.

Phoebe Hennell

Phoebe Hennell is co-founder of The Oxford Blue, and former Managing Director. She is reading Philosophy and Modern Greek at Christ Church, and is on her year abroad in Athens.