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Is 'Potty Parity' Just a Pipe Dream?

Although things are improving, women still wait in line to use facilities.

January 14, 2001|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The dreaded line for the restroom.

Every woman has encountered one or two or 100 such lines. It's almost a primitive ritual in America: A woman goes to a crowded public gathering and ends up praying at the bathroom door for the others in front to hurry.

Plumbing engineer April Trafton has several techniques for coping. At Dodger Stadium, she waits until the Dodgers are at bat. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she lingers in the courtyard during intermission--then makes a dash for the washroom minutes before the curtain goes up.

Some women invade the men's room--occasionally deputizing a male companion to stand guard. This action has varying consequences--like risking arrest. (More about that later.)

Most just submit to the wait. Almost all grumble about it. Meanwhile, men usually breeze in and out of their facilities.

In an age of creature comforts sophisticated and superfluous--like SUVs with VCRs--why are women still waiting for toilets?

The question has that if-they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon quality to it. Shouldn't this be easy to resolve? The answer is mired in a mixture of bureaucracy, plumbing codes, social convention and, no surprise, a bit of male chauvinism.

That doesn't mean some men aren't sympathetic. But the laws governing women's bathrooms seem to change only when men are inconvenienced.

For instance, in 1987, the Restroom Equity Act was signed into law after being introduced by Art Torres, a state senator at the time. Torres, now the California Democratic Party chairman, was inspired after he had to wait--and wait--for his then-wife to use a restroom at the Hollywood Bowl.

"I looked at this line, and I said, 'What's going on here? Is the plumbing out?' " recalls Torres. "Then she told me how this had always been a problem and how she sometimes resorted to going to the men's room."

The law mandated more facilities for women in large new public projects, but it didn't cover existing structures. The Bowl and several other major Los Angeles facilities have, however, substantially increased the number of restrooms for women and men during renovation projects in recent years.

"I think standards for women's restrooms are so low that nobody complains. It was just given as a norm--which is wrong," says Mike Garcia, general manager of the Greek Theatre, which recently more than tripled its facilities from 27 women's stalls to 97.

The current rules governing the number of toilets, urinals and sinks in public restrooms are charted in Table 4-1 of the Uniform Plumbing Code, adopted by California as the basis for all its plumbing standards. Cities can tweak the code, but only to make it stricter.

There have been some increases in numbers of toilets for women, but the figures haven't risen substantially over the last decade. It's not that the International Assn. of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials--who write the code every three years--are against more toilets for women. It's just not the group's most compelling issue.

Plastic piping versus copper piping, for example, is the sort of topic that captivates the plumbing industry.

"The only time I ever want to be a man is when I go to the bathroom," says Trafton, who as a plumbing engineer who has sat on code writing committees is one of the few women in a position to help change the code. The male-dominated community of contractors, engineers and architects isn't known for its sensitivity to the concerns of women, says Trafton. But, she says, "I think they are beginning to address it. I truly think it is better than what it was. . . . The only place I think we need to address it a little bit more is in stadiums."

Trafton herself has never suggested any changes to codify an increase in bathroom requirements. "I never really felt a strong need for it," she says. "There were other things that concerned me more. I don't like air-admittance valves."

Women Take Longer to Use the Commode

Technically, there's already more than gender equity--or "potty parity," as it is sometimes called--at work. For more than a decade, the code has specified that women's toilets outnumber men's toilets (not including urinals) in large assembly areas at, roughly, a 3-2 ratio.

For most women, however, the issue is not getting as many bathrooms as men--it is about getting more. Women simply take longer in the bathroom--and it's not because they're primping.

A 1988 study of the bathroom habits of men and women at four public venues revealed that women took 55% to 65% longer in public bathrooms than men. The wait is for the stalls, not the mirror.

"The myth was if women would quit fooling around and get their business done, they'd get out faster," says Sandra Rawls, who conducted the survey for her 1988 doctoral dissertation in housing, interior design and resource management at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Rawls, who is now an interior designer in Naples, Fla., put in her statistical survey what most women have already assumed--it takes women longer than men to use the bathroom.

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