In my third week of graduate school, I set my backpack down in the graduate student lounge and headed out the door to the bathroom. I had struggled through a two-hour, graduate-level class on thermodynamics and was wallowing in (undeserved) self-pity because I was struggling to understand the material. Then I looked up and smiled. For the first time in my life, there was a line stretching out of the men’s bathroom and not the women’s bathroom.
Stark shifts in bathroom occupancy and in bathroom identity were visible manifestations of the change in gender ratio from that at my undergraduate institution, Mount Holyoke College (MHC) – one of the Seven Sisters and still proudly an all-female institution – to that at the University of Minnesota. Nearly all of the students at MHC identify as female, and therefore, there is at least one women’s restroom on every floor of every building. However, because MHC has faculty, staff members, and students who identify as male, there was one unisex bathroom on (at least) every other floor. In contrast, the Chemical Engineering and Materials Science graduate program at the University of Minnesota – as in nearly every other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field – is made up of mostly men. This switch in gender ratio manifested itself both in bathroom occupancy and even the number of restrooms on different floors. Before the new wing was added onto the building in which I work, the first floor had two all-female restrooms, the second floor only one, and the basement and third flour none at all! Suddenly, I found myself not being able to assume that a floor would have a restroom that fit the gender I identified with, which sent a subliminal message: You are different.
The label of “different” is concerning because labels are strongly associated with certain expectations or stereotypes, which change people’s behavior.[i] When a label is tied to negative stereotypes, that label has been shown to negatively impact women’s performance in mathematics tests, African American students’ performance on verbal tests, and widen the gender gap in science because the threat of fulfilling a negative stereotype distracts from the task at hand.[ii],[iii],[iv] This effect has been termed stereotype threat. The label of “different” isolates people and makes them less relatable to the majority group.
Amidst the recent controversy over North Carolina HB2 – known as the “bathroom bill”[v] – and the introduction of a similar bill in the Minnesota state legislature[vi], I thought about my experience with bathrooms. Proponents of the bill argue that its primary goal is safety. Although I identify as the same gender as on my birth certificate, my experience suggests that the bill’s biggest impact will be to further stigmatize a minority group. Life is difficult enough (for all genders) without having to stop and remember where the bathroom that matches your gender is. When an addition onto the building I work in opened in Fall 2014, I gleefully discovered that there are now male and female restrooms on every floor except the basement. In addition, there are even a few multi-sex restrooms that could be changed to be gender-neutral.[vii] The change gave me hope that the attitude is shifting to be more accepting, and it comes as a relief – figuratively and literally.
[i] Alter, A. (2012). Drunk Tank Pink: and other unexpected forces that shape how we think, feel, and behave. New York: The Penguin Press.
[ii] Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of experimental social psychology,35(1), 4-28.
[iii] Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
[iv] Vedantam, Shankar. (2012, July 12). How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science. All Things Considered on National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/07/12/156664337/stereotype-threat-why-women-quit-science-jobs
[v] Epps, G. (2016, May 10). North Carolina’s bathroom bill is a constitutional monstrosity. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/hb2-is-a-constitutional-monstrosity/482106/
[vi] Montgomery, D. (2016, April 12). ‘Privacy’ vs. ‘discrimination’: Legislature debates transgender bathroom bill. Pioneer Press. Retrieved from http://www.twincities.com/2016/04/12/privacy-vs-discrimination-legislature-debates-transgender-bathroom-bill/