Is your toilet signage discriminatory?

There was an interesting and thought-provoking Employment Tribunal case last week – one which the CIPD called a “Landmark” judgement.

In short, a transgender woman, Erin Bisson, had contacted a ferry company by phone asking them which toilets she should use. An employee had suggested, “use a disabled loo”. The other toilets on the ferry were labelled “ladies” and “gents”.

Firstly, the ferry company was found guilty of direct discrimination for the suggestion that Erin should use the disabled toilet. I understand that, although can also understand how an uninformed person would suggest that in a non-malicious way in an attempt to be helpful.

Secondly, the company was found to have indirectly discriminated against Erin by having the worded signage on the toilets rather than pictorial representations as the worded signage was “limiting”.

Personally, I have never understood why all toilets are not gender-neutral – they are in people’s homes, they are on trains and planes. It reminds of rafting the Grand Canyon last year and there were no toilets for peeing in, and eventually some men and women were peeing next to each other in the Colorado; there were no issues. But that’s another blog …

On the same day as this judgement, LifeSiteNews reported that, “The New York City Human Rights Commission has released a list of 31 different terms of gender expression employers must use or face $250,000 fines … The fines go as high as $125,000 for misnaming a person’s gender intentionally, and $250,000 for doing so maliciously.” The University of California Berkeley provides a helpful glossary, together with a table for the “pronoun-curious”:

Subject Object Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
Female She Her Her Hers Herself
Male He Him His His Himself
Gender Neutral Ze Hir Hir Hirs Hirself
Pronunciation zee here here heres hereself

On the social media front, there are now more than 50 custom gender identifiers for a person to select from on Facebook – accessible through an autocomplete drop-down menu.

Returning to our UK ferry boat finding, one sentence that Erin stated either during the proceedings or after was, “Gender is down to identity, symbols is one way of dealing with this”. This has been picked up by the vast majority of reports.

This comment has also been picked up on a lot of internet discussion groups, the main discussion point being that people don’t understand it. Many firms of lawyers who have also reported on it for their clients give no explanation of what it means for their clients.

The only attempt by someone to explain it that I can find on the internet is ‘BG’ on a Google forum, where he/ she / ze states, “However, whilst the stylised symbols *mean* “ladies” and “gents” they are just outlines. So, someone who is actually a gent (tackle-wise), but looks like a lady, can argue that he/she should undisputedly use the lady’s loo.” A valiant attempt in two sentences.

From a practical implementation and workplace focussed perspective, whilst the UK Government’s published guidance is helpful, I am left with a number of thoughts (and more questions than answers):

  • It is great that society is doing all it can to be inclusive, and both recognise and support all differences within the Equality Act’s protected characteristics.
  • At what point does it become too complicated for your average Jo / Joe to comprehend, learn and apply in every situation?
  • What are the implications for organisations in terms of staff training (I’m delivering some Equality and Diversity sessions in a few weeks and, from previous experience, I can imagine the reactions if I introduce signage on toilets to the session. But perhaps I need to?).
  • Are we losing the balance? Recognising and celebrating diversity is more than protected characteristics. It is very important, but purely focussing on this makes it very two dimensional. We also need to recognise differences between individuals not based on protected characteristics (their motivations, their communications preferences, other innate preferences, etc.) – recognising and valuing both strands is what makes a workplace truly inclusive.

I would value your thoughts?



Tags: , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Is your toilet signage discriminatory?”

  1. Wal Green says:

    This really is a complex issue for, as you say Paul, the Jo or Joe confronted with such a situation. I am going to go for the simplistic answer, and at the same time risk a bucketful of criticism.

    By suggesting the person used the disabled toilet, it seems a wrath descended (or maybe ascended, or came in sideways) upon the ferry company. Perhaps it is time to consider responsibilities in all of this. Before I get to my simplistic answer I need to say that I sympathise with the individual’s attempt to be helpful by looking for a neutral route to solving the presented ‘problem’. I cannot but wonder the reason for presenting the ‘problem’ at what seems to have been a late stage – almost an after thought. Perhaps there were earlier opportunities in the application/recruitment process where the needs of the individual may have been better addressed. However, they were not.

    So it comes to my thoughts about this. Everyone has responsibilities and, with exceptions, most people have the capacity to make decisions for themselves. Is there a problem? Whether the signage on the toilet is text or graphics, the decision as to which toilet to use can be made by the individual. They seem to be the person who is best placed to make that decision; they make the same decision every time they use a toilet elsewhere, e.g. in the restaurant, at the supermarket, or using public toilets.

    As to the disabled toilet… A member of my family has certain issues having had their colon removed. Using the toilet is not always a pleasant experience for them. My family does not qualify to be registered as being disabled, however they are entitled to, and have, a specific key for entry to locked disabled toilets. Lastly, disabled toilets are not purely for the use of disabled people. First and foremost they are a toilet – one which has been equipped for those people with any form of disability.

  2. Wal Green says:

    Last paragraph – should read ‘My family member…’

Leave a Reply