With Larry Summers questioning their science ability, and the Bush administration weakening Title IX, it has not been a great year for women in higher education.
But the Los Angeles Community College District has adopted a new policy that will help its female students in a most practical way: The ratios used to set the number of male and female bathroom stalls -- a ratio that has allowed men to zip in and zip out, while women stand in line -- is changing.
Most of the buildings in the nine-campus district were constructed 30 years ago, and have a roughly one-to-one ratio of male and female bathroom units. Biology, however, gives men a speed advantage in the bathroom. And the inequity in facilities becomes more apparent when you factor in enrollment trends. Like many community colleges (and plenty of four-year institutions), the Los Angeles district has seen its female enrollments growing far more rapidly than those for men.
About 65 percent of the 140,000 students in the system are women, and some campuses have female enrollment that is as high as 75 percent.
Larry Eisenberg, executive director for facilities planning and development at the district, says that a new formula will now be used, based on the idea that 70 percent of people who need to use bathrooms may be women. The exact formula will vary by the size of a given building, so in a small suite of offices, there may be an equal number of men's and women's bathroom units.
But as the number of people using a facility grows, the number of women's bathroom slots will grow significantly. Most classroom buildings will end up with one bathroom unit for every 30 women and for every 40 men. (A unit can be either a stall or a urinal so the proportion of stalls available to women is even greater.)
In buildings with an auditorium, or in a stadium, the ratio changes again. They will have 4 units for every 50 women using the facility and 1 for every 50 men.
"Our goal is equal access to service," says Eisenberg. The comparison shouldn't be the number of bathroom units, but the amount of time someone has to wait to use the facilities. Under the new system, that waiting time should be no time at all -- for men and women. Currently, system officials say, female students report having to wait or having to take bathroom breaks during class because they can't use facilities between classes.
The new policy was adopted as the district is about to embark on a $2.2 billion facilities improvement plan, which will include both new facilities and renovations. Eisenberg said that the new ratios would be used in any building covered by the facilities program.
The Los Angeles district's policy is based in part on the idea of "potty parity," which has been pioneered by John H. Banzhaf III, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University. He believes  that inequity in bathroom facilities constitutes illegal sex discrimination.
Banzhaf says he has not heard of a college taking the issue as seriously as the Los Angeles district, and he praised officials there for doing so. "This issue needs a lot more attention from colleges than it's getting," he says.
Lander Medlin, executive vice president of APPA: The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, says that she is hearing many facilities officials at colleges talk about the problems of inadequate bathroom facilities for female students, especially as enrollments of women grow. She predicts that other colleges would soon adopt policies like the one in Los Angeles.
"It's the right thing to do," she says.