PEEQUAL founders say that it’s time to free the pee! Former University of Bristol students Amber Probyn and Hazel McShane have created PEEQUAL – the UK’s first standalone touch-free women’s urinal. What started as a shared passion to fight the problem of never ending toilet queues has turned into a real life solution for women that will soon be available at festivals and events. Read more to find out about their mission, and why queuing for toilets is a feminist issue.
Interview and artwork by Eliot Lambert.
E: Where and why did PEEQUAL start?
H: Peequal started in mine and Amber’s masters year at Bristol university. Amber and I had worked at lots of festivals, and in our breaks, we always had to choose between going to the loo or getting food. And this problem isn’t just at festivals – every time we go to a pub, club, park, or any public space, we wait in these long queues whilst men whizz in and out. It is so unfair! We came together to fight the problem of women’s toilet queues. We wanted to build something for our Master’s project, and were really interested in the taboo around women urinating, and why it wasn’t spoken about more.
A: Like Hazel said, we wanted to tackle the taboo. We did a lot of research into what has already been done to tackle long queues. We found that there are so many issues around women queuing, issues like women leaving the queue and being prone to getting sexually assaulted. It was really sad learning that these issues have a knock on effect from women not having adequate toilet accessibility. Learning all this definitely ignited mine and Hazel’s passion.
E: Why is queuing for the toilet a feminist issue?
H: It’s a hierarchy of whose time is more important. Women are queuing for 30 times longer than men, which, as feminist Judith Plaskow says, are ‘repeated daily reminders of whose needs come first and whose second. In learning to stand in bathroom lines and wait patiently from an early age, girl children are also learning to accept their subordination quietly.’ It’s so sad because you don’t even notice it, it’s so normalised.
A: In Anthropology, I learned that men designed the cityscape, so naturally, they designed it through a male lens. For example, we have cities with lots of stairs that are difficult for women to push prams up, and dark alleyways that women are more frightened or vulnerable in. Because men designed it, and not in a malicious way, they probably didn’t take these considerations enough into account. This lack of accountability has escalated into toilets. We can see this through places of power not having women’s toilets nearby, due to women being excluded from them when they were designed. In the House of Commons and other powerful political buildings, you have to go 15 minutes out of your way to use the women’s toilet, because it is not near the places where decisions are made. This is a real feminist issue, so it is important to shake it up and not just accept it. It’s almost easier not to make a fuss because that takes a lot of energy, but we think it’s necessary.
E: What is the driving force of PEEQUAL?
A: The people who we’ve tested or talked about it with, who can’t wait to see it in public places. Hearing that feedback, and not just from users, but also from event organisers and other people is so motivating. It shows that it is a real need to be addressed, not just something that we are pushing onto people and hoping they will want. We hope our urinal will have other positive outcomes, like solving problems such as creating a safe space for women. We are optimistic people so we want to see a world that is better, and to play a part in building it.
H: We also want to create gender neutral and male urinals, because it’s not only women who aren’t happy with the toilet situation right now. We want to make sure everyone can pee safely, sustainably and sanitarily.
E: What does your urinal look like and how does it work?
A: We have three different layouts that the urinal can be in, the most common one being a circle. It’s a standalone structure which you step up into, and it can hold six women at one time. It hasn’t got a door, but it’s got an overlapping screen, so you’re completely private when you squat, apart from your head which would be seen above the panel, just to show that you’re in there, and to speed up the efficiency of use. When you squat, you’re not overlooked because you’re raised up on the platform. You squat over the pedestal and don’t need to touch the seat or surface. 80% of women already squat in public toilets anyway, so it’s just making that process more comfortable for different squat heights and abilities of flexibility. We did a lot of testing on that before COVID.
H: It’s brightly coloured, playful, and a really inviting place to be. Also, It’s modular and flatpack, which means you can take it apart really quickly like lego, and pack it in transport to be taken to whatever event or site. We reviewed this with sustainability consultant AECOM, who found that we produce 98% less CO2 than portaloos. Because events are a travelling circus, they spend half their life being in the back of lorries, so if we can cut the number of lorries on the road, it has a highly positive impact on the environment.
The Peequal prototype
E: How have women responded to the urinal?
H: I’d say mostly positive, but it’s a bit marmity. The younger generation are so up for it, which is really exciting and encouraging. The response we’ve got from most women is that they have been crying out for something like this for a long time. We do get some negative feedback from the fact that your head will be seen over the top, and for some women, that’s an immediate no. But if we can create a fast lane for those that can feel comfortable using it, it frees up the queue for the actual toilets, which just means everyone can get in and out a lot quicker. We don’t intend to revolutionise the whole system and make everyone use our product, it just definitely helps speed things up.
E: What are your next steps in the journey?
A: Our next steps are taking it to local events. That way, we can get lots of real feedback from attendees, and quickly be able to change our design before we spend a lot of money on the tooling or manufacturing side of things. So it’s being as quick, as scrappy and as agile as we possibly can. We just need to get out there and into that market, to validate it more and test those assumptions that we’ve made. In the future, we hope to secure funding to invest in tooling, and produce the final designs to then rent out and sell next year to larger events such as Glastonbury and Shambhala. We see 2022 as our official launch year.
H: To take that a bit further, we don’t just want it for festivals. We want to take our design to every place women queue, and adapt it to fix site venues such as football stadiums and sporting events. We’re very interested in helping in humanitarian aid, so we hope to use our partnership with Water Aid to help where our product can alleviate any problems, for example, in disaster sites.
E: Do you have any advice for students who would want to create their own startup?
A: Find someone to do it with. It’s so important to be in a team and talk things through with each other. All the founders that we speak to, if they’re not in a team, wish that they were, because they found it really difficult on their own to rationalise thoughts and be supported. Also, just really believe in it – don’t just do it for the money, do it because you really see a problem that needs solving.
H: Find a community. There are so many University-led entrepreneur communities, as well as accelerators and incubators that you can join. Some of them are funded, and some even pay you! As soon as you’ve got your peers around you creating something, they push you forward and give you a sense of accountability as well, which really helped us out.
E: Finally, how can people reading this get involved in your mission?
H: Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and just shout about the problem! Send us all the photos of the female toilet queues that you get stuck in, so that we can really drum up and expose this problem. We all know it’s a problem, but we really need to shout about it, to make sure that the conversation continues.
A: Get behind and support us. Reach out to us directly if you have any opportunities or links to help us out. We are not all figured out and are still developing, so if you know anyone who would be interested in having our product at their event, or you know someone in the Bristol City Council, please reach out to us and help. We want to get as many people involved as possible. This isn’t just a two woman team but a whole movement!