Men’s Room, Women’s Room: An Overlooked Binary Division?

an-old-fashion-mens-and-womens-bathroom-signThis article scratches the surface of a complex issue. It asymptotically approaches topics surrounding (1) the binary division of “men” and “women”, (2) its historical significance, and (3) the work being done to promote “unisex” mentality, including unisex restrooms. It is important to take these efforts into careful consideration when considering the topic of women in science and gender equality (for more information, Nature publishing did this special issue on Women in Science: Women’s Work).

Claude Steele and many other sociologists elaborate on the concept of stereotype threat, which leaks into discourse surrounding the topic of women in science. While this field of research is only recently accumulating more quantitative evidence, the idea of women in science reporting greater inclination to feelings of imposter syndrome and the like is easily related to the discourse of Robert K. Merton on the sociology of science in general over half a century ago:

…when statements are doubted, when they appear so palpably implausible or absurd or biased that one need no longer examine the evidence for or against the statement but only the grounds for it being asserted at all.*  Such alien statements are “explained by” or “imputed to” special interests, unwitting motives, distorted perspectives, social position, and so on. In folk thought, this involves reciprocal attacks on the integrity of opponents; in more systematic thought, it leads to reciprocal ideological analyses. On both levels, it feeds upon and nourishes collective insecurities…

[*Footnote]: Freud has observed to seek out origins rather than to test the validity of statements with seem palpably absurd to us…On the social level, a radical difference of outlook of various social groups leads not only to ad hominem attacks but also to “functionalized explanations.”

–Robert Merton “Paradigm for the Sociology of Knowledge” 1945

Ideally, we do not let our perception of gender interfere, consciously or unconsciously, with our interpretation of the quality of another individual’s work (i.e., ad hominem attacks). Problems include (1) overcoming our initial reaction to categorize individuals in broadly defined stereotypes associated with historical (out-dated) gender roles and (2) appealing to any fallacies supporting the maintenance of out-dated gender roles.

Ask me to describe myself, and I will describe my aesthetics: biology, foreign languages, philosophy, post-modernism, and critical theory. Ask a stranger to describe me, and “female” is a socially acceptable general category.From this category, one may already make many assumptions of who I am and the quality of my work; however, the social category of “woman” is not one with which I would immediately self-identify, though I reside in this category when I check boxes on documents, select a gender pronoun, or use the restroom. Restrooms in the work place are usually segregated into binary divisions of men and women, and there’s a historical (subjectively out-dated) reason for it.

Assimilation of men and women in universities and the work place did not happen overnight. Although social boundaries have expanded, the women’s restrooms in buildings (not recently renovated) still reflect an out-dated gender bias. “Women in Science,” one may define being “in Science” intellectually, occupationally, or even architecturally. A woman in a lab or building where STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) related work takes place, in some regard, is a woman in the realm of science. Restrooms in older STEM buildings were constructed when gender ratios were noticeably different from now, so male restrooms in subjectively antiquated STEM buildings may have 2-3 times more stalls and double the square footage of adjacent female restrooms (I discovered this from stealthy, late-night investigations, when gender-bias in restroom size and organization became apparent to me).

The restrooms (the toilets, los baños) are an unspoken divider between consumption and its precipitating waste product, and this distasteful observation may be the reason why the topic of gender bias in the construction of these “places of human retreat” is generally ignored. Restrooms linger unobtrusively down the hall, whence scientists meander to return to work. Little is spoken about why some scientists go into one door (the one with the stick figure wearing an inverted triangle dress) while some scientists enter the other.

Matthew Kopas writes on the history of gender-segregation starting in the late 19th Century in Massachusetts to protect women in the work place. Unisex bathrooms in dorms provoke outrage in some online college discussion boards as something indecent. This calls into question the binary division between male and female. Humans may self-identify as neither or both genders, or somewhere along a continuum. Are gender-segregated bathrooms reinforcing a hetero-normative work environment? 

Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, describes the exclusivity of categorical naming (e.g., “male” and “female”):

“It has become difficult to name one’s feminism by a single adjective — or even to insist in every circumstance upon the noun. Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in ‘essential’ unity. There is nothing about teeing ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices…”

In the context of restrooms and women in science, we are confronted with this interesting division that calls to question what it means to bewoman,” which would be, based on this simplistic binary division, to benot man.” Historically (and in certain extant cultures with which others are far more versed than I), to be a certain gender implies (1) fulfillment of certain social obligations and 2) barred the pursuit on non-normative gender roles. But not all women united in being “a woman” within these predetermined social boundaries. To the contrary, this did not mean all women united in movements for women’s rights (e.g., suffrage movements). Miscalculation of the effects of gender equality promoted speculative levels of social perversity and immorality. This persisted through the mid-twentieth century and women infiltrated the work force (of course, this is primarily middle-class women, as women in lower-classes have been forced to work for millennia). Buildings were constructed in certain socio-cultural contexts, and men and women somehow ended up with separate restrooms. In buildings where construction space is limited and few women are expected to work (do to other social obligations of the time), the women’s restroom is constructed with fewer stalls and in smaller spaces, satisfying the (falsely) projected deficiency of women in science.

Let us look at this restroom dilemma through a metaphorical lens. Laws, rules, and buildings are conceived and constructed to fulfill a certain need while inadvertently (perhaps) reinforcing cultural ethics and gender norms. While serving their purpose in a given temporal and spatial context, the protection they provide may be seen by posterity as hampered freedom. Are unisex laws and unisex restrooms what we are to expect in the future? Is this a consideration we must make in the path to gender equality?

1Just a small example from external media to support this assumption:

Desk Set (1957)–about 3 minutes into this clip:

“Often when we meet people for the first time some physical characteristic strikes us. What is the first thing you notice in a person?”

Whether the person is male or female.” —Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn’s character) 

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