Wednesday, April 16, 2003

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What are my colleagues working on?

The University of Chicago has acquired a long-standing reputation for being concerned primarily with abstract ideas. With the possible exception of our political philosophers, this is largely a canard -- what my colleagues excel at is marrying larger theoretical concerns to practical, real-world questions.

Which brings me to this University of Chicago Magazine cover story on our faculty's "unexpected areas of expertise." Law professor Mary Anne Case is investigating a subject near and dear to women's hearts across this land -- the inequities of public toilets:

Lines for public bathrooms, one of the last supposed vestiges of “separate but equal,” regularly show the facilities are anything but. “What’s most often equalized is square footage,” Case says. But because urinals are smaller than stalls, “men are almost always offered more excreting opportunities than women,” which likely accounts for longer women’s lines—not women simply taking longer. And more of the space in women’s bathrooms, she notes, is filled with vanity tables, fainting couches, and baby stations.

The project—after several years she’s collected hundreds of surveys for a planned law-review article—was spurred by Case’s research into the history of constitutional arguments for equal protection of the sexes. Believing the law rarely should distinguish between males and females, she advocates “a model akin to the typical airline toilet,” providing ultimate privacy without segregation (though she’s learned that many women prefer a same-sex environment).

The survey also gives men and women “a sense for how the other half lives,” Case says. For instance, when she visited a New York children’s museum, a male companion saw a poster in the boys’ room asking, “Who can ‘go’ faster? It takes men about 45 seconds to urinate (pee). It takes women about 79 seconds to urinate. How do you compare to the average? Ready, Get Set, GO!” No such poster, Case confirmed, was in the girls’ room.

Click here if you'd like to contribute to Case's database by filling out a copy of the aforementioned toilet survey.

I suspect some may find this kind of research trivial -- and I would vehemently disagree. This is an eminently practical question, and I suspect there is a dearth of literature on the topic. Good for Case.

P.S. The story links to other interesting avenues of research -- Roman Weil's analysis of the ever-increasing quality of wine, or Richard Epstein's research into parking and squatter's rights.

posted by Dan on 04.16.03 at 02:56 PM