“The Last Women’s Magazine – A bit of Coffee, A bit of Gender Equality”

Originally published at The Last Women’s Magazine <– Click here for original post!

I am not one to make it a habit of mainstreaming my coffee choice, but the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks near my attic apartment in Germany lured me in a few weeks back. Filled with couples, strollers, and the everyday pastry eater, I watched a man holding his child by himself while texting and occasionally sipping a frothing whatnot. I thought about similar images of men caring for their children from my time in Scandinavia (globally known for their progressive gender norms). There I watched men walk in groups and push their children in strollers, which was somewhat of an attention getter to someone who grew up with care primarily from my mother.

Like most days when refills of coffee are abundant, I made my way to the bathrooms maneuvering inbetween the strollers, coffee drinkers, and tiny furniture towards a hallway silenced from the chatter of the cafe. Reaching two wooden doors, one had a familiar black shaded figure with a triangle skirt on the lower half of the body, symbolizing the women’s bathroom. The left door was labeled with a gender free human figure- the men’s bathroom. (Note: symbols for the sexes vary globally with such as in Asia where it can be seen marked with ‘X’ or ‘O’ and keep an eye open for the more common unisex symbols now flashed around.) Added beneath the woman’s figure was a picture of an infant. This label clearly indicating that the changing facility for infants was located within the women’s bathroom.

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Glancing at my poofy hair while washing my hands, I thought about the man I watched playing with his child and drinking his coffee. I hoped that for both him and his child’s sake that his infant would not need a changing within the timeframe it took him to drink a coffee. After all, where would he go to do this? I wondered what a couple (both men) would do if their child needed changing. Would they go home because Starbucks, the door makers, and society assumed that no man in the entire world would ever stop to get coffee and during that time need to change their infant?

I asked employees in various Starbucks globally if their bathrooms had the same symbols. They do not. Nevertheless, here it appeared, symbols in which I have passed by maybe 15 times, reinforcing archaic gender images. By abiding to the placement of these signs, essentially we assign gendered roles that limit the images of masculinity and femininity – reducing women to the traditional role of caregiving and associating this role with femininity. By isolating the changing facilitities to the women’s room, we reinforce the idea that no man would/should provide childcare in the act of changing a child. We promote that caregiving is neither a role associated with the masculine gender nor a role carried out by someone of the male sex.

Do these symbols really have the power to create and imbed such accusations, to directly assign roles to sexes, making us believe that caregiving is biologically tied to the sexes’? Obviously, these simple symbols on the bathroom door appear to have great innocence to them but what if we were to switch the placement of the baby-changing facility to the male’s door? How would that make you feel, what are alternative interpretations of this situation? I know as someone dedicated to understanding the world of gender, I still would be surprised to find the baby-changing symbol [only] on the men’s bathroom door. Of course there it should not solely be here nor there, but I recognize by abiding by these symbols without question, we continue to think within the boundaries of these societal and structural norms.

The good thing is though these signs are placed there by businesses, they are decided on and created by a collective group of people, and essentially humans make them. Therefore, such norms, labels, and symbols can be shifted, changed or reinforced by people, by us. Our daily life is full of indicators of social norms, it is our responsibility to critically think about them and bring attention to them. We just have to see them first.


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