The Problem with Princeton University Bathrooms: A Case of Institutionalized Sexism

03/04/2015 11:55 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Princeton University first instituted codes on female restrooms in 1978 with the intention of keeping non-students out of women's bathrooms. However, with the installation of the prox swipe-in system outside of residential buildings in 1999, the original function of the codes was rendered obsolete. No male restroom requires a code for access. No other university, to our knowledge, enforces codes solely on female restrooms.

On the surface level, these locks serve as an extreme inconvenience to girls throughout campus, as each building requires a different code. I (Amanda), and countless other girls, have stood outside the female bathroom on countless occasions, waiting for a friend to text or call back with the code. I also admit to sneaking into the male restroom; in fact, some friends have even showered there out of convenience.

Typical female restroom keypad.

On a deeper level, bathroom codes enforce archaic and institutionalized gender norms. Now that Princeton uses a prox system in each building, there is no outside threat, so whom is the university protecting Princeton women from? The silent finger is pointing towards Princeton men, a complication that has extensive psychological ramifications.

The Psychology

Each time a woman enters in the code, she is primed to think of herself as defenseless, vulnerable, and weak. Each time a man hears the beep of the keypad, he is primed to think of himself as an aggressor. Priming is an implicit psychological phenomenon in which a stimulus -- auditory, visual, or tactile  --  induces a certain behavior.

For example, in a study conducted by psychologists Kay, Wheeler, Bargh, and Ross, subjects were found to behave more competitively after mere exposure to objects common to the business field such as briefcases and boardroom tables. Via the material prime of restroom codes, Princeton is effectively drilling in the very gender stereotypes that have held back social and technological advancement for so long.

The "Experiment"

I (Monica) decided to spend the day of Jan. 9, 2015 studying at a desk adjacent to a female restroom in a residential building to observe the effects that codes have on Princeton females in a controlled setting. In the span of six hours, five girls approached me and asked for the code, two used the mobile app GirlCode to gain access, and one stared at the lock for a while before resigning herself to walk away with a bloated bladder. At the end of my study session, I stood up to examine the physical lock. After leaning in, the only scents that registered were frustration, disappointment, and obsolescence. The keypad felt worn and rusty to the touch, indicative of almost 40 years of female (bladder) repression.


As a leading research university, Princeton should be doing its part in reducing these gender norms rather than enforcing them. The type of precedence this sets is incredibly problematic and is indicative of Princeton's reputation as a passive and politically inactive university. The maintenance of anachronistic restroom codes is revealing of disinterested students and administrators who are content with allowing gender inequality to manifest.

In fact, according to Luke Massa, a Daily Princetonian columnist, the maintenance of the status quo is a reason many students give in support of the continued enforcement of restroom codes. There is a culture of indifference that speaks to the heritage of a university that is so grounded in tradition. Bathroom codes serve as a metaphor for the need for greater conversation on campus.

Taking Action

In order to spark much needed dialogue on campus, we, along with our friend Victor, created GirlCode, an iOS and Android app that presents a compiled list of every bathroom code on campus. The power of GirlCode comes not from the technology used to build it, but from the message it exudes. In the few days the app has been live, it has garnered almost 500 downloads, controversy on social media, two features in The Daily Princetonian, articles in USA TODAY and, and interest from other news outlets.

Restroom codes are relics of Princeton's past. They represent an outdated and psychologically harmful way of thinking. Yes, Princeton is a university founded on tradition, but we cannot let "tradition" serve as an excuse for inaction.

Update: We have decided to take down GirlCode under pressure from the administration (effective 1/14/15). We don't want to jeopardize the progress of our degrees, so we'll be complying with the request. Princeton is currently discussing the issue of bathroom codes and are leaning towards locks on female and male restrooms (an option that was surveyed to be incredibly unpopular among the male student body).