5 lessons on creating gender-inclusive restrooms

Yena Son, Analyst

Higher education is one of the many places where the national conversation about access to gender-inclusive restrooms is playing out. To date, over 150 colleges and universities have created gender-inclusive restrooms on campus—but this trend isn't limited to higher education.

The White House added a gender-inclusive restroom in April 2015, and in March of this year, Brown University's Alpert Medical School opened its first gender-inclusive restroom. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia recently convened a working group to assess restroom facility needs throughout the hospital and primary care network, updating existing buildings to meet new standards and ensuring new construction includes gender-inclusive restrooms.

We asked our colleague Ann Forman at the Education Advisory Board to share what facilities leaders at colleges and universities have learned about converting restrooms. While the physical changes to space are typically minimal—mostly changing signage—early movers point to five lessons that organizational leaders should keep in mind, regardless of industry.

Lesson #1: Converting existing single-occupancy restrooms is the most cost-effective solution.

Cost is an important consideration, since mandates for gender-inclusive restrooms are usually unfunded. The most efficient way to create gender-inclusive restrooms is to convert existing single-occupancy restrooms. This typically requires nothing more than changing the sign on the door and adding receptacles for feminine hygiene products (when converting men’s restrooms). Using this approach, one university estimated that $25,000 was sufficient to convert 150 restrooms on their campus. 

Lesson #2: Deciding how to indicate gender-inclusive restrooms is a more important decision than you might think.

Gender-inclusive restrooms go by different names at different locations, including "All-Gender Restrooms," "Gender-Neutral Restrooms," or simply "Restrooms." Organizational leaders may find the choice of how to label gender-inclusive restrooms somewhat arbitrary, but LGBT advocates often feel that certain labels can be confusing, exclusive, or even offensive. Health care leaders should engage staff and patients in a conversation about how the signs should look before installing them.

In cases where a gender-inclusive restroom is located in a back hallway or when there isn't one accessible in a building, signs on the restroom door may not be sufficient. Directional signs indicating the nearest gender-inclusive restroom will help ensure that staff, patients, and visitors are able to find the closest one when they need it. In addition to signage, many universities are starting to publish lists or maps online showing every gender-inclusive restroom on campus.

Lesson #3: Ensure gender-inclusive restrooms are distributed evenly across the organization.

For gender-inclusive restrooms to serve their purpose, they must be easily accessible from every area of the organization. Moving forward, gender-inclusive restroom policies are likely to recommend gender-inclusive restrooms be within "reasonable distance." When selecting which single-occupancy restrooms to convert, choose restrooms in a wide variety of locations to maximize the number of staff, patients, and visitors who can reach them. For example, the University of California Los Angeles' facilities leader assessed each restroom location on a map to ensure no gender-inclusive restroom is more than a two-minute walk away.

Lesson #4: Converting gendered restrooms into gender-inclusive ones may affect compliance with laws and building codes.

Arguably lagging behind the current social and political landscape, many state and local building codes dictate the number of men's and women's plumbing fixtures a given building needs. As a result, you may take a building out of compliance by converting a men's or women's restroom into a gender-inclusive one. Keep an inventory of your organization's restrooms to ensure you remain compliant.

Some leaders intentionally take buildings out of compliance by converting existing restrooms into gender-inclusive ones, assuming the building codes will eventually change. While not recommended for everyone, those leaders believe the fees for violating codes are minor compared to more expensive renovations required to remain in code and also create gender-inclusive restrooms.

Lesson #5: Consider privacy when making multi-stall restrooms gender-inclusive.

Some organizations are pushing past single-occupancy restrooms and starting to build multi-stall gender-inclusive restrooms. Any multi-stall restroom can be converted to a gender-inclusive one with a signage change, but people are often most comfortable using this type of restroom if each toilet and urinal has a floor-to-ceiling stall. Even if your organization isn't ready to take the step now, building floor-to-ceiling stalls now can make conversion to gender-inclusive restrooms easier in the future.

Looking ahead

Moving forward, gender-inclusive restrooms will likely become more common. Organizations that want to offer gender-inclusive restrooms can start by converting single-occupancy restrooms. Leaders should also keep the growing demand for gender-inclusive restrooms in mind when undertaking major renovations or new construction. Planning for gender-inclusive restrooms now can prevent the challenge of converting them in the future.

Want to learn more about preparing your organization to care for more diverse patient populations? Our study, Equipping Staff to Care for Diverse Patient Populations, offers five best practices to help your staff deliver culturally competent care.

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