05/31/2016 09:51 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

Porcelain and Privilege: Gender Oblivion, Bathrooms and the Push for Equity

Sara D. Davis via Getty Images

Gender oblivion refers to the covert ways that gender stereotypes influence everyday practices of individuals and organizations. Earlier this year we discussed how gender oblivion would continue to pose significant challenges for women in the military as they integrate into combat positions, despite the formal policy changes that have occurred. Gender oblivion, however, is not limited to military. The recent discussion of bathroom policies in public schools focused on transgender individuals are reminiscent of the bathroom discussions we heard when discussing female integration into combat positions with soldiers in Special Operations.

In our initial research, soldiers frequently discussed bathrooms while talking about the integration of women into Special Forces. At first, we were a bit surprised by the conversational turn to bathrooms, but it turns out that bathroom politics encapsulate gender oblivion in the workplace and the larger heart of inequality in many organizations. Marking the entrances to bathrooms is an easy way for organizations to police and enforce informal boundaries. In addition to its functional purpose, the gender signage on a bathroom door also represents an unspoken organizational boundary that demarcates between who has access to an organization and who does not. Membership to a particular bathroom directly communicates to a group and lets them know if they are insiders who belong, or if they are outsiders who don't really belong; or worse yet, if they are simply invisible to an organization.

As the rhetoric surrounding toilet politics continues to swirl, we often find ourselves returning to Sally's story, which perfectly captures gender oblivion and why bathrooms are a common space of organizational privilege.

Sally was one of the few women in an elite training program for the Army. The "School," as they referred to it, was built for men and had traditionally only housed men. When Sally entered the program a simple modification was made to the barracks; a sheet was hung to separate her living quarters from the men in her class. This inexpensive and simple accommodation allowed Sally to remain in the barracks with her team rather than segregating her from them. However, the leadership at the School insisted that Sally had to have a gender-segregated bathroom. Sally's "female" designated bathroom was a ten-minute walk from the barracks. Each morning her class was provided 30 minutes for hygiene. The men used bathrooms attached to their barracks while Sally had to walk 10 minutes to get to her "female" bathroom. Being tardy is not an option in the military, so Sally had to rush to complete her morning routine in 10 minutes so she had time for her round-trip bathroom commute. Sally is tough, and does not complain, but she did note the unfairness of her ten-minute hygiene time to the men's 30 minutes. Rather than being singled out for her gender, Sally said she would have preferred to "just share" the bathroom with her class like she shared the barracks. Although Sally didn't recognize it, she was fighting to be a full member of the organization.

Sally's desire to "just share" bathroom facilities was not unique. In our survey of women in Special Operations 78% of our sample were willing to use unisex bathroom facilities all of the time or most of the time with their male colleagues. This was in stark contrast to the men we surveyed in Special Forces, only 49% of whom were willing to share unisex bathroom facilities all or most of the time with their female colleagues. Throughout our focus groups, men typically discussed their opposition to shared bathroom facilities as a desire for privacy, and were ultimately unwilling to share a facility that they perceived was built exclusively for their needs. Since the men were never required to share facilities, they were largely unaware that their desire for privacy posed an institutional disadvantage for their female colleagues.

In the military, women are pushing for equality in an institution that does not have a blueprint that includes them. It was literally not built for women in terms of how the space was designed, and it was figuratively not built for them in terms of the norms that have evolved over time. Much of the infrastructure, norms and practices of the organization were never intended to include women. Gender oblivion blinds the military (and many other organizations) to the long-established norm of designing spaces and practices with men in mind without recognizing how this norm builds inequality into the institution for others. Although not malicious in intent, many of the practices where invisible gendering continues, contribute to inequalities in the workplace, even in institutions built to protect the equality that our nation promises.

Last week the Obama administration released guidelines for public schools on transgender students' use of bathroom facilities. Opposition to these guidelines has fallen into two broad categories. The first focuses on the need to protect the safety of cisgender students now sharing a bathroom with transgender students. This is largely a straw man argument as there have been zero reported cases of transgender students attacking cisgender students in bathrooms in public schools. However, the reverse does not hold, as violence against transgender students has been documented.

The second line of arguments focuses on the privacy of cisgender students in spaces that have traditionally been seen as exclusively theirs. This reasoning parallels the privacy argument we heard from many men in our military research, where they symbolically constructed the bathroom as a less hygienic "man cave." A space uniquely designed for men, where their privacy is paramount and the boundaries of the space is guarded from outsiders.

Schools have historically been built to recognize gender as a male/female binary based on biology, but society now recognizes that gender is more fluid than a simple male/female binary that does not always correlate with biological sex. Like the change in military policy banning women from combat positions, the Obama administration's guidelines push educational institutions to be more inclusive and strive for gender equity, noting that many educational buildings were not designed with these concepts of equity in mind.

Gender oblivion as a concept encourages us to think critically and deeply about institutions, probing us to think about how they were designed and how current practices are framed by conscious and unconscious stereotypes related to gender. Privacy as a framework often focuses on the desires of individuals to maintain their own privacy, but rarely explores who might be excluded from institutions in order to maintain the privacy of individuals who have always had access.

If we strive to be an equitable society we must ask whom our institutions were built for and how that opens and closes doors to access an institution. Often this means that people in society who have traditionally benefited from privileged positions must challenge themselves to examine how their privilege continues to benefit them. For men in the military this may require opening up spaces that have traditionally been built exclusively for them in order to facilitate gender integration. Similarly, in our schools this means recognizing that access to a bathroom based on gender identity, rather than biology, moves us toward creating a more welcoming and inclusive educational institution.