Public washrooms - the gender divide?

5th of March 2014
Public washrooms - the gender divide?

There was a time when gents’ toilets tended to be grubbier, smellier and less well-equipped than ladies’ facilities. But with the rise of the metrosexual man and a growing interest in male grooming, has this position changed? ECJ finds out about current expectations in male and female washrooms – and whether these are being met.

Sexism is being challenged in almost every facet of today’s society, and equality is being pioneered by all. But public washrooms in many European countries are still coyly separated by gender. And since few of us visit the washrooms of the opposite sex it can be difficult for anyone but premises managers to find out how these facilities compare.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that items such as fresh flowers, mirrors, tissues and hand creams are more likely to appear in ladies’ washrooms than in the gents’. But today’s men are much more concerned about aesthetics – and their appearance - than they once were. Recent research from Mintel reveals that the US and UK men’s grooming markets are growing steadily, while beauty and personal care launches aimed specifically at men increased globally by 70 per cent over the past six years.

So it is logical to assume that today’s men are also more discerning about their toilets. Head of product management at Hagleitner Dr Georg Steiner confirms this to be the case and adds that today’s gents’ and ladies’ facilities have become very similar.

“We have carried out studies that show women to be more sensitive and have higher expectations of washroom standards than men, but there is only a difference of a few per cent,” he said. 
“In some washrooms the air freshener fragrance differs from the ladies to the gents but we provide the same soaps, hand towels, toilet paper, air fresheners, hand creams and hand disinfection for the washrooms of both sexes.”

Metsä Tissue’s UK and Ireland sales director Mark Dewick says this was not always the case, however. “In the past men would use washrooms in a functional way and were not really concerned about their surroundings,” he said. “They didn’t need a mirror; they were not worried about the lighting and they would simply go in, use the facility, wash their hands  - sometimes - and then come out again.

“However women’s toilets were felt to be different and many of them acquired items such as air fresheners, personal care products, a mirror and good lighting.”

A survey conducted by Metsä Tissue in 2007 revealed that women use an average of three hand towels after using the toilet. “The men – well let’s just say the hand towel sleeve lasted much longer in the male facilities,” said Dewick. But he adds that today’s men are becoming much more fastidious. “The younger male generation is much more interested in their environment and their appearance than they used to be, and even today’s older men have become a little more metrosexual,” says Dewick.

“A better acceptance of all gender states along with sexual equality - and more importantly, role equality – is also playing a part. A growing number of single fathers are acting as carers nowadays and no-one wants to take a baby or small child into an unhygienic environment.”

He says many venues in town centres now have communal toilets. “Even new or refurbished office buildings may provide a common entrance to shared facilities, though the cubicles themselves may be separate,” he said. “This has placed pressure on those venues to provide a more consistent feel and has raised the quality and attractiveness of washrooms in general since the providers need to be able to appeal to the entire spectrum.”

Brand manager of P&L Systems Francesca Hay says washroom expectations have changed across the board over the past few years. “Both men and women expect more from washrooms than they did a decade ago,” she said.

“There is a tendency to think women feel more strongly about the state of their washrooms, but it is increasingly becoming a concern for men as well. In recent years, ladies’ and men’s facilities have become more similar and some bars and nightclubs now offer unisex facilities. Where both sexes use the same washrooms it is even more important that standards are high so that neither sex is disappointed.”

She adds that the traditional provision of baby-changing equipment in ladies’ washrooms has also changed. “There is now the expectation of a whole separate baby facility complete with changing table and nappy bin in the gents’ as well,” she said. “Today’s users expect to see a clean, safe and hygienic facility with the correct equipment in all washrooms.”

Hay claims that air fragrancing is becoming more popular both in ladies’ and gents’ washrooms to create a pleasant first impression. “However, customers often choose a masculine fragrance such as our Adrenalin product for male washrooms and a more complex fragrance from our Precious range - reminiscent of expensive perfumes - for female toilets,” she says. “And in unisex washrooms fragrance can play an integral role in making the facilities feel more welcoming. A neutral citrus scent is often used here since citrus is well known to mask odours.“

According to Hay, gents’ toilets sometimes require extra fragrancing due to odour problems associated with urinals. “The most successful way of tackling this is to supply a urinal sleeve which contains enzymes to keep urinal pipes clear,” she said. In fact she believes this need for a higher level of odour control in the gents’ – plus the requirement for a sanitary waste disposal unit in the ladies’ - have become the only key differences.

Hoteliers confirm more standardised washrooms are becoming the rule. Resident manager at the Sands Resort and Spa in Mauritius Patrick Chan says the men’s and women’s washrooms at his hotel are equipped almost identically.

“Both the ladies’ and gents’ toilets are decorated with a simple arrangement of tropical flowers, face towels, a box of tissues, liquid soap, electric hand dryer and an automatic air freshener sprayer,” he said. “The only difference is that in the gents’ there are urinary bowls containing naphthalene balls while in the ladies’ there is a container for sanitary pads.”

Communications manager of upmarket hotel chain Mövenpick Tina Seller also feels the differences have become relatively minor. “Both male and female toilets at our hotels have baby changing tables, though there are make-up tables and hygiene units in the ladies and of course urinals in the gents’,” she said.

Excel Dryer’s vice president of marketing and key accounts William Gagnon says one of the major differences between men’s and women’s washrooms is the need for a higher level of maintenance in men’s rooms.  “The misuse of paper towels clogs not only the toilets, but the urinals too,” he said.

He agrees with other manufacturers that men are becoming increasingly discerning about washroom standards. “A recent Cintas Corporation survey revealed that more than 94 per cent of US adults would avoid a business in the future if they encountered dirty washrooms,” said Gagnon. “With an increasingly critical male audience, businesses and commercial facilities should be keeping washroom cleanliness for both males and females top of mind.”

Product and segment manager of Tork manufacturer SCA Charlotte Branwhite agrees that the basic functional requirements of a washroom are the same whether it is aimed at men or women. “Washrooms for both sexes need to be hygienic; have a good appearance; function reliably and also be easy to clean and maintain,” she said.

However, she adds that expectations have risen sharply over recent years both among men and women. “This is partly due to an increased awareness of the need for hygiene following incidents such as the swine flu scare,” she said.

“Meanwhile, an increasing number of men are using products such as moisturisers and lip balms and are more concerned about their appearance than the days when a comb was the only ‘male grooming product’ most would require.”

Branwhite adds that ‘extras’ designed to impress customers in smart hotels and restaurants have increasingly begun creeping into men’s facilities as well. “However, it is doubtful whether make-up stations, tissues and hand creams will be as appreciated in the gents’ as the ladies’,” she adds.

“And away-from-home washrooms tend not to be equipped according to gender but on the specific requirements of the washroom itself –such as whether factors such as hygiene, image or cost is of paramount importance in that setting.”

Kimberly-Clark’s UK end user marketing manager Suzanne Halley agrees with this viewpoint. “The uptake of our core products is identical and the same quality toilet tissue, hand towels and soap is provided regardless of gender,” she says. “Both sexes expect a certain level of hygiene, care and comfort when using a washroom - especially those at work.”

She agrees with SCA’s Branwhite that product choices tend to be made more on the type of washroom than on the gender at which it is aimed. “For example a washroom in an office is more likely to provide moisturisers, air fresheners and facial tissues than a high-traffic facility at a train station, airport or stadium,” she said. “And we see air fresheners installed in both gents’ and ladies’ washrooms nowadays. However, women do tend to spend more time in the washroom than men and are therefore likely to have higher standards.”

She believes that gents’ and ladies’ facilities will continue to become more similar over the years. “People’s awareness of hygiene is increasing in general and I think both genders will continue to demand higher levels of hygiene, cleanliness and comfort,” says Halley.


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