Gender Inclusive: Rethinking the Restroom

“Our modern conception of public restrooms dates back to antiquity.”

– Gensler

My mom likes to remind me every now and again that when she was a kid, she had to take her business to the “outhouse.”  Between the imagined smells in the summer heat or “hovering” for fear of your backside getting stuck to the seat in the winter, I’m forever thankful of modern day indoor plumbing.

We’ve come a long way from the outhouse.  And when you also take into account the role restrooms have played in our culture up to this point, I think you’ll see that we’ve made a lot of progress.

That said, even after the equal rights movement, repeal of Jim Crow laws, and passing of ADA and transgender rights, there is still room for improvement, especially in restroom design. 

You’re probably already seeing changes in retail and public restroom environments, but I assure you that corporate America is soon to follow.

According to the Pew Research Center, women are out pacing men in earning four year degrees and post graduate education.

Workplace pay gaps and equality across the gender spectrum is becoming a major topic at the conference room table.  A more diverse work environment will increase demand for alternatively designed spaces, including the restroom.

Former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs experienced this first hand when designing Apple’s headquarters.

Jobs originally designed the space to put restrooms in the center of the building, but quickly received push back from female employees.  Why?  Because for expecting mothers, bathroom trips are a frequent occurrence. 

Despite Jobs’ desire to make the restrooms part of a collaboratory hub, it simply wasn’t functional for staff and was scrapped for lavatories sprinkled throughout the space in a more traditional manner.

Below is a quick guide and nuggets that may come in handy when you or your company decide to redesign your office to be a more gender inclusive space, starting with restrooms.

Truth in “stage fright”

Gender neutral spaces need to promote comfort and safety for all users, otherwise folks will likely take their business elsewhere.

That said, design of a gender neutral facility also has to be somewhat practical for the company or developer installing the facility.

Below I’ve listed out a few items that should be taken into consideration for designing gender neutral corporate/public restrooms.  

Privacy, proximity, cleanliness

Floor to ceiling stalls are ideal, but routing ventilation may add cost to or complicate the project depending on size and scale.

Floor drains can often hold smells when not flushed regularly. When permanent fixtures are placed too close together they cannot be properly cleaned and will hold any smell that finds them.

Most importantly, facilities that are not properly ventilated will hold any smell that enters the space or allow smells from the outside or below to enter the restroom.

It will be critical to confirm that cleaning equipment will work in the new space.

Don’t assume; accommodate

Designing for inclusivity up front is a proactive method to developing an open and diverse culture (tends to attract better talent and promotes collaboration/diverse perspectives).  Changes resulting from incidents can have the opposite effect.

Language is important

The use of “Gender Neutral” can be problematic as it may be perceived as erasing gender identity altogether.  Try to use “all gender” or “gender inclusive”

Signage and pictograms should also be clear (see picture below).

Consider cultural context

Cultural norms in the Middle East will be different than what we expect here in the US.  Know where you’re building a bathroom and adjust accordingly.  Here’s an example of Islamic culture’s take on toilet use.

  • Islamic. Countries that follow the Islamic faith follow particular rules regarding toilet use. Generally washing with water as opposed to using toilet paper is considered a ritual act of purity, and hands must be washed immediately after. It is also accepted that the left hand is used to wash oneself, and the right hand is used for handshakes. The practice of washing as opposed to toilet paper use is also common in many Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries. In India, it is also expected that one washes themself with their left hand and eats with their right. – International Toilet Etiquette
Preferred Amenities:
  • Stalls
  • Full length mirrors
  • Towels
Amenities to Avoid:
  • Attendants
  • Urinals
  • Seating (i.e. couch)

In 2018 the international building and plumbing codes (IPC) were updated to include gender neutral restrooms as proposed by the AIA, however some local jurisdictions have taken it upon themselves to promote inclusiveness.

The 2018 IPC edition (Section 2902.1.2 in the 2018 International Building Code) adds the following crucial language: “Single-user toilet facilities and bathing rooms, and family or assisted-use toilet and bathing rooms shall be identified for use by either sex.”

Up to this point and in most areas that have not adopted gender neutral standards, regulator codes demand a specific ratio of male/female ratios for restroom design.  Most of the gendered spaces we encounter today are restrooms and locker rooms.  

The change may not seem like much of an adjustment, but opportunities for a better design going forward create efficiencies that trickle down to users.

Gender neutral designs are all around us but haven’t fully infiltrated the “privvy” yet.  However, that is changing.  In fact, you may have been in a gender neutral designed restroom and not realized it.

A Lesson in Universal Design:

Universal design can be applied to anything (not just restrooms).

Here are The Seven Principals of Universal Design taken into account when creating a universal product, facility or experience.

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple & Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Size & Space for Approach and Use
  7. Low Physical Effort
Benefits of an “All Gendered” space:

Multi-person, all gendered bathrooms are safer when they have more traffic and are designed to be more open and visible, which tends to dissuade predators from setting up shop.

All gender spaces grant access to folks of all shapes, sizes and abilities which saves money on redesigning later on.

Keep your eyes out for gender neutral spaces on the rise in public facilities and throughout corporate america in the next few years.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Guide to All Gender Spaces
  2. 7 Principals of Universal Design
  3. His and Hers Designs for a Post Gender Society
  4. Gensler Research
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