Last reviewed 16 April 2021

The Government has noted a trend towards the removal of sex-specific toilet provision over the past few years. Can gender-neutral facilities meet everyone’s needs? Laura King considers the expectations and requirements for toilet provision.

At the end of October 2020, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government launched a call for evidence on toilet provision for men and women, which ran until 26 February 2021. In it, the Government claimed “that there has been a trend towards the removal of well-established male-only/female-only spaces when premises are built or refurbished, and they have often been replaced with gender-neutral toilets”. The consultation description went on to state that the Government felt that this change in emphasis puts women at a disadvantage given their specific needs. “Women often have to face excessive queues for toilets or don’t have access to appropriate facilities that meet their needs when out.”

The consultation aimed to look at the ratio of female toilets versus those for men, and to take into account the needs of all members of the community, “to ensure there is a fair provision of accessible and gender-neutral toilets”.

So, should organisations be considering a move to gender-neutral facilities in the workplace?

Law and guidance

In terms of legislation, the Building Regulations 2010, part G4, places a duty on employers to provide suitable sanitary conveniences and handwashing facilities. The Workplace (Heath, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 goes into detail about facilities in the workplace, stating in regulation 20 that:

  1. Suitable and sufficient sanitary conveniences shall be provided at readily accessible places.

  2. ...sanitary conveniences shall not be suitable unless:

    1. the rooms containing them are adequately ventilated and lit

    2. they and the rooms containing them are kept in a clean and orderly condition

    3. separate rooms containing conveniences are provided for men and women except where and so far as each convenience is in a separate room the door of which is capable of being secured from inside.

The accompanying Approved Code of Practice L24 lays out the minimum number of toilets and washbasins per employees at work.

As such, although they should provide separate facilities where possible, organisations are not required by law to provide single-sex facilities if the toilet is in a room (not a cubicle) with a lockable door. All facilities must, however, be conveniently located, supply clean hot and cold water with soap or other cleaning means, include towels or other drying means, be adequately lit and ventilated and be kept clean and orderly, including sanitary bins for female employees.

Although there are no references to unisex facilities for the general population within Part G of the Building Regulations 2010, where toilets are provided in a room, s.4.15 of Part G specifies that the washbasin can either be within the self-contained room, or in an adjacent room.

Other guidance goes further regarding inclusivity. British Standard 8300 Design of an Accessible and Inclusive Built Environment. Code of Practice addresses the needs of ambulant disabled people, wheelchair users, parents, carers and guardians, religion, as well as gender and sex. The most recent standard, updated in 2018, builds on the experiences gained during the design and operation of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Inclusive Design Standards that were developed as part of the event’s legacy. The Inclusive Design Standards’ ethos is that design must meet the needs of the broader community — including people’s cultural, ethnic, gender and disability requirements. These guidelines address the requirements for unisex provision in addition to single-sex and accessible toilet provision.

Alongside BS 8300, Part M of the Building Regulations 2010 specify additional standards for accessible toilet facilities to accommodate those with a disability (as well as wider needs, such as those of people of either sex with small children). For example, in England, 4m x 3m Changing Places toilets are now required in all new public buildings.

Unisex or gender-neutral toilets

One of the main arguments in favour of gender-neutral toilets is that they can reduce waiting times for the ladies’ bathroom. They also suit people who are responsible for taking a child of the opposite sex into the bathroom and carers looking after adults of the opposite sex.

The Government consultation provoked a strong reaction from trans support groups, such as Gendered Intelligence, who have long campaigned for gender-neutral toilets as a safe and usable facility that accommodates their unique needs. “Trans”, according to Stonewall, is an umbrella term to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth. Not feeling welcome in either male or female-only spaces is a well-documented issue for trans individuals, as evidenced by a Stonewall study in 2017 which reported that nearly half of trans people did not feel comfortable using a public toilet.

From a practical standpoint, combining facilities may free up more space and make cleaning easier, although the requirement that each toilet should be in its own room instead of a cubicle in the workplace means that it may turn out to be more costly. Unisex toilets designed to accommodate a range of needs will also be larger than a single-sex toilet, potentially negating any space-saving. All toilets will also need to contain a bin for sanitary waste.

If you are going to retain some urinals in your unisex toilet, there should be a partition wall, to screen them from general view. However, evidence shows that many women are unwilling to walk past urinals to get to cubicles in previously male facilities.

Single sex toilets

On the other hand, many groups campaigning for women’s rights have expressed concerns that gender-neutral and unisex facilities are not always suitable for females, and so reducing single-sex provision in favour of mixed-sex actually creates inequality by restricting women’s options.

For example, Fair Play for Women argues that sex-specific toilets facilitate the participation of women in public life, providing privacy and dignity for both sexes, and are safer for females.

Anecdotal evidence suggests parents are less comfortable with teenage girls using unisex toilets on their own, thus limiting their options. Single-sex toilets are especially important for women who, for religious reasons, would not be permitted to use mixed sex spaces, or for those who have suffered sex-based violence.

Inadequate provision

For many women, toilet provision also remains inadequate despite it being a fundamental requirement. Women are far more likely to need a toilet than men, whether due to smaller bladders, menstruation, incontinence, pregnancy, or as a parent or adult carer. For these reasons, and differences in clothing (requiring a greater level of undressing), women spend up to twice as long in the toilet and require more space. This means that allocating females the same number of toilets or the same space as male toilets is a false equivalence, especially where the provision of urinals in the latter means that in reality women have fewer toilets.

Conclusion

Many of the published responses to the Government’s consultation recognised the need for facilities that met all needs. Similarly, a recent YouGov poll which found that a third of people would prefer a mix of sex-specific, and unisex toilets also points towards a growing understanding that equality means accessibility for everyone: it follows that wherever possible, toilet provision should take this into account.

Under the Equality Act 2010, organisations should make provision for all employees with protected characteristics. From the perspective of toilets, the key ones are sex, disability and gender reassignment. Best practice inclusivity design standards, such as BS 8300, also require that facilities accommodate a diverse range of needs.

Ideally, in accordance with best practice for inclusivity, people should be able to access facilities that they feel comfortable using. This means consulting different elements of your workforce before making any changes and possibly providing a choice of facilities, including sex-specific and gender-neutral/unisex toilets. Any gender-neutral toilets should have floor-to-ceiling partitions and sanitary hygiene bins.

It is also important to ensure that no group is disadvantaged when converting or refurbishing facilities. This could mean ensuring that toilets for women or disabled users are not converted into gender-neutral facilities as a way of increasing capacity.