In the Stalls

04.27.1312:00 AM ET

The Last Office Taboo for Women: Doing Your Business at Work

In the corner office and the boardroom, women are 'leaning in.' But there's one place where they're still wracked with anxiety and shame. A look at the lengths we go to avoid getting caught in the stall.

A woman will go to great lengths to never get caught doing it, especially at work.

One 27-year-old at a financial services firm in New York City brings her BlackBerry along while she does it, and sends an email during the experience so that she has an “alibi.” A popular national morning TV show host in her 40s—who, like most others interviewed in this story, asked to remain nameless to avoid embarrassment—said that she walks 10 minutes to another section of her midtown office building to do it, and still then only does it when no one in the hallway sees her en route.

These women, and many others like them, are not partaking in a secret drug deal or plotting a crime. They’re just trying to take care of an essential bodily function at the office. But for many women, the act of a bowel movement is enshrouded in fear and anxiety. Jill, 28, a Vancouver native now working at an insurance company in New York City, said that if she absolutely can’t avoid the act entirely, she lifts her feet off the ground and props them up against the side of the stall to avoid the “chance that the person next to me would recognize my shoes and forever hold in their heads that I was the girl” defecating in the ladies’ room.

Other women report going to different floors, or walking roundabout routes from their desk to the bathroom. And some say they’ve experienced the “standoff,” when two or more women are in the bathroom, but all decline to do their business until the others leave—instead waiting awkwardly, in silence, writhing in emotional and physical discomfort, until someone surrenders.

Why all the shame and anxiety for women over a biological imperative? And why specifically at the workplace?

“Shame threatens to engulf us at moments when our biological reality—our ‘animal nature’ as it is commonly called—overwhelms our ‘civilized’ self,” writes Rochelle Gurstein, cultural commentator author of The Repeal of Reticence. “That is, when we are too directly confronted with the body in its most physical aspects.”

That’s especially so for women, says a New York City psychologist who also asked not to be named. She suggests that men are physically and biologically more exposed than women because they have exterior reproductive organs and cannot hide or fake arousal, nervousness, or orgasm. A woman’s body, however, simply by design of hidden reproductive organs, is a “very mysterious and powerful thing,” she says. “This [concealment] may get transformed into the idea that nothing happens inside women’s bodies.”

Of course, a lot happens in women’s bodies— the creation of life, for one thing—and the invisible but “tumultuous and generative nature” of the female body causes a “primal fear of women and what can happen inside their bodies,” the psychologist says. It’s the unexpectedness and the shock that partially makes it “more awful to associate women with bodily fluids” and makes it “frightening at a very primal level.”

Gender constructs begin early and can affect a women's career in countless ways, as Sheryl Sandberg notes in her book Lean In. After all: “What are little boys made of? Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails; What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice.”

According to Samantha Kwan, a sociology professor at the University of Houston, women tend to internalize these social constructions and respond by trying to discipline their bodies. Going to the bathroom, especially at work, is a clear example. “There is a lot of shame and anxiety when it comes to violating the rules” of what it means to be a woman: pristine, pretty, nice-smelling, and immaculate.

The office environment takes this anxiety and kicks it up a notch. “The workplace still remains men’s space. Women may be more hypervigilant of not breaking rules of gender by monitoring their femininity even more,” Kwan says. Harvard anthropologist Kimberly Theidon agrees. “Office space is already pre-determined as a masculine space and women enter it,” she says, adding that there is a “long history of women trying to manage their bodies in their workplace,” and a struggle to not be identified with or associated solely with their bodies.

Kyle McIntyre, a 25-year-old working at a website in Los Angeles, obsesses over the perfect timing of the flush to cover the sound. She said that if it’s not just right, “the entire mission is shot to hell and your only option is to crawl through a bathroom vent to avoid revealing your identity.” In Japan, sound panels called Otohime, meaning “sound princess,” were installed years ago and in almost every public ladies’ restroom. A small Japanese gadget that girls carry in their purses makes fake flushing sounds that they use to cover up their own sounds.

For some, there’s no solution to be found except to simply wait it out. “My whole life was ruined because there was not a private bathroom in my dressing room at The View,” Rosie O’Donnell wrote in Celebrity Detox. “Now I could not go poop until I got home.”