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Jack Knox column: Public loos the frontline in battle for potty parity

Aug 05 2012

Didn't make it to Mamma Mia the other night. Had to wash my hair.

My wife suggested I might want to go to the play, but I replied that while there's nothing I enjoy more than being trapped in place for two hours of Swedish elevator music, she might prefer the company of someone who wouldn't spend the entire time playing BrickBreaker on his BlackBerry.

She bridled at this, argued that Abba songs are catchy, but I said so is syphilis and I would rather not spend an evening with it, either. The conversation deteriorated after that.

Apparently other guys agreed with me, since reports from the field indicated A) Mamma Mia was terrific and B) women made up roughly 90 per cent of the audience.

Which meant 90 per cent of those using the washrooms were women, too.

This would be interesting, since even at male-dominated gatherings - hockey games, UFC fights, prison - the queue for the women's room resembles the Costco checkout horror on a rainy Saturday. At female-heavy events, the lineups rival those that snaked outside the old passport office on Fort Street, where the homeless would hire themselves out as placeholders.

The contrast between male and female access is particularly stark in public facilities where the washroom doors are side by side. The guys speed past as though driving in the HOV lane, while the women are stuck dancing the Gotta-Pee Polka in the Colwood Crawl.

Sometimes I come out of the gents, then sail right back in again two minutes later, just to show the crosslegged crowd that I can: "Forgot my watch on the foosball table." (That's what we have in there, along with a putting green, shoe shine stand and mini-bar. Modern, progressive men's rooms also have diaper-changing tables, which we use for blackjack.)

Both sexes have come to accept this washroom imbalance as the way of the world.

But, says John Banzhaf, we shouldn't.

Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, is known in the U.S. as the father of potty parity. He argues that women who accept long loo lines as their lot in life are, in fact, being subjected to discrimination.

The principle applies to anything that puts a definable group at a disadvantage, he says. Imagine the outcry if blacks lining up to pee were systematically forced to wait longer than whites. Yet women who refuse to tolerate other inequities endure this one with little more than a grumbling fatalism and the odd bladder infection.

"In a sense, potty parity is a last bastion," Banzhaf says, on the phone from his home in Virginia.

It comes down to how we define equal treatment. A generation ago, it was deemed sufficient to give women's and men's washrooms the same floor space. But that wasn't really equal, Banzhaf says, because you can squeeze more "outlets" into a men's room. "In the space of three toilets, you can probably put 12 urinals."

So builders began installing washrooms that allotted to each sex an equal number of fixtures. But even that fell short because, as proven by a couple of doctoral studies, women take twice as long in the washroom as men. ("It's because you people are slow, weak and inefficient," I explained to a gal pal. Her speechlessness can be taken as tacit agreement.)

So now the law in many U.S. jurisdictions requires a 2: 1 ratio in new public buildings - two women's toilets for every toilet or urinal in the men's rooms. (Though note that after Tennessee's potty parity law led to the construction of a Nashville football stadium with 288 fixtures for men and 580 for women, it was the guys who waited 15 minutes while the women waltzed right in. The law was changed to allow extra men's rooms at stadiums and car-racing tracks.)

The law is less rigid here. B.C. building code rules vary depending on occupant load, building use and other factors, but generally, new public structures include more washrooms for women.

Whether that's good enough is easy to determine, Banzhaf says. "The real test is whether women on average wait significantly longer than the men. If they do, it's sex discrimination."

So, be warned. Jurisdictions that fail to mind their pees and queues risk a legal challenge - bringing a whole new meaning to the old cry: Let my people go.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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