Action taken to make one group feel safer can make other groups feel safer

Traditional symbols for gender-specific restrooms, used by Diana Sanchez and Kimberly Chaney in their study.
Photo: Diana Sanchez

Companies with gender-neutral restrooms make women, African Americans and Latinos feel safer and more welcome at work, according to research published today by Rutgers University-New Brunswick social psychologist Diana Sanchez and graduate student Kimberly Chaney. Their study has been published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“We wanted to know whether organizations that adopt gender-neutral bathrooms signal fairness to people with identities that might be stigmatized, such as women, African-Americans or members of other minorities,” said Sanchez, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Sanchez and Chaney examined the responses of three groups of people who formed impressions of an organization based on a set of images displaying the interior and layout of the organization’s office: 170 undergraduate college students, 150 undergraduates chosen for a mix of ethnicities and 130 African American and Latino men in their 30s. All three groups answered a series of questions about how comfortable they might feel working there. The college students took their surveys in Sanchez’s lab; the older, African-American and Latino men did so online, remotely.

The researchers asked participants in the first group, which included men and women, questions designed to find out how the participants thought women would fare in the generic organization, based on what the participants saw in their online tour of the facilities. On that tour, participants saw either a sign for a gender-neutral restroom or a traditional “men” or “women” sign. In the survey, women in the group thought the organization with the gender-neutral restroom was more likely to be female-friendly – more likely to offer paid maternity leave, for instance – and also more likely to promote women. Men in the group also believed that the organization would be female-friendly.

Diana Sanchez, associate professor of psychology.
Photo: Courtesy Diana Sanchez

Sanchez and Chaney showed the same images to the second group of undergraduates, but added questions to the survey designed to elicit impressions about how ethnic minorities might fare at the company.

The third group, drawn from a publicly available database, consisted of African-American and Latino men. They, too, said they felt safer and more included in a company with gender-neutral restrooms.

“What we found was that the actions that an organization takes to make a particular group, such as transgender employees, feel safer can transfer to other disadvantaged employees such as women and racial minorities, who may worry about being discriminated against in organizations,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez says her finding is important because it shows that attitudes about difference and inclusiveness affect how everyone in an organization feels and acts. “The debate about bathrooms has been mainly about transgender people, and not enough people in our society care how they feel,” she said. “But this study shows that such signs benefit women and minorities because they reveal that the organization has a more egalitarian attitude.”