Let’s talk about Office Toilets 💩

Loos, Ladies, and Lack of infrastructure.

Hello ji,

We begin, as any respectable New Year edition should, with a fairy tale.

Once upon a time, there was this thing called the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

Let us call them Men. Because they were.

Now, Men were asked to come up with a building code for office spaces in the US in the 1960s. Men did some math, knocked a few beers, and telegrammed their wives to keep the dinner warm because they would be home early today.

This was going to be an easy one.

They came up with something called “Clo” – a clothing insulation effect measure – and said that according to Clo, an office temperature of 21 degrees Celcius would be optimum to keep the people comfortable.

Men congratulated themselves and slapped each other’s backs for a job well done.

And it must have been too, because we are 60 years in the future today, and still haven’t found any reason to challenge their math.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Except.

Except for one tiny problem: You see, when Men said “people”, they meant Other Men, who all share a high body metabolic rate. And when they said “Clo”, they meant clothing insulation provided by thick business suits worn by these Other Men.

Enter, women. We came to the modern workplace with our lower metabolic rates, dressed in our business suits made of paper-thin fabric, or our salwar kameezes, skirts, and sarees.

Men’s math does not work for us.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Open the drawer of any woman in an office (with her consent, please) and you will find the beast called the ‘office sweater’ there, in regular use even when it is 48 degrees Celcius outside.


Our workplaces are not designed for women.

I am not even talking about the way incentives are aligned, performances are measured, promotions are rewarded, or harassment at the workplace is handled.

No, today we are dealing only talking about bricks and mortar (and thermostats). Because one would think that making space for women physically would be the easy part.


“I am scared of contracting a UTI”

Sheetal volunteers at a social sector organization, where she spends most of her days. There are many challenges of working at a not-for-profit.

One challenge, however, that Sheetal had not anticipated, was finding a place to pee. She is the only woman who works at the organization, and all the toilets have been laid claim to by the men working there.

“All the toilets look like they have been vomited and peed inside, outside, all around, and have never been cleaned. This may be acceptable to the men who just have to stand and pee but I am a woman who is spending hours here every day and I am very scared of contracting a UTI (urinary tract infection). So I have no clue what to do about this situation.”


“A clean toilet is a basic human right”

Sneha, a lawyer, recalls the experience of another lawyer friend who was working through her pregnancy and went to meet a senior counsel for a 7 pm meeting. She landed early for the meeting and, since the office did not have a ladies’ toilet, she had to make a few visits to the public restroom outside the office while she waited. The senior counsel saw this and told her, “I don’t want your bathroom visits interrupting our meeting so let us do this at the end of the day.”

The pregnant woman sat in the waiting room till 9.30 pm, waiting to begin the 7 pm meeting she had arrived early for. All because a man – who had not thought of installing a ladies toilet inside his office – found her biological need to visit the washroom irritating.

Her friend’s experience had such an impact on Sneha that when she was hunting for a space for her own office, the number one criterion she used – which surprised her male partners – was that it should have its own toilets so that no one in her team had to use public toilets.

“A clean toilet is a basic human right, one that is somehow overlooked in our courts and offices. Ladies toilets in courts are filthy, and lawyers have to wait long hours at the beck and call of judges while they wait in a building without a clean toilet in sight.”

It starts early. Photo of an actual girls toilet in a school in Madhya Pradesh (2015). Source: indiaspend.com

Q. What is common between Bihar and Kerala?

A. Women don’t need to pee in both States.

Government offices are far worse in this regard. Anita, who has worked as a civil servant in both Bihar and Kerala says that the culture in the two States could not be more different. Except for the infrastructure for women in government offices – or the lack thereof – which is exactly the same.

“In Bihar, we were 7 women in an office of 300 people. In Kerala, there are 100 women out of a staff of 300. Yet, we have had one ladies’ toilet as compared to 8-10 gents toilets in both my workplaces.”


“I stopped drinking water”

Preeti worked in field sales for a consumer goods company. Her job as a Rural Area Sales Manager would involve traveling to remote parts of the country. Her ‘Area’ would typically be at least a 2-3 hours drive away from the nearest town where she could stay. The markets and even the company’s distributor offices would never have clean toilets. To cope with reality and be able to do her job, she had to resort to a strategy your doctor would not advise.

“I know it is very unhealthy, but I would just not drink much water. As a woman, it is challenging enough to work in a field position and I did not want to attract any untoward comments about the ability of women to do this job. So I just stopped drinking water. Of course, my male counterparts faced no such challenge. For men, the entire world is a toilet.”


Infrastructure for Working Mothers

While the lack of toilets hits the largest number of women the hardest, there are many more facilities organizations need to provide (by law in many countries) for the welfare of their women employees. More so for working mothers.

Since the task of caregiving for children falls disproportionately on women in Indian families, working mothers need daycare centers in order to manage work and home. New mothers also need breastmilk pumping rooms to smoothen their transition to work without affecting their ability to breastfeed their child till the internationally recommended age of 2.

While such basic facilities remain unheard of in most Indian offices, I spoke to some women working at the organizations that regularly win awards for being women-friendly, in the hopes of finding some success stories there.


Designed by a man

Menaka works for a firm that Employment Surveys rate highly on women-friendliness year after year. She spoke to me about the breast milk pumping room at her office.

Kudos to them for having one, for starters.

Menaka went to the office a few days before her Maternity Leave ended to check the setup of the room. She found that the room was hidden away in a corner of the office where nobody sits.

“I don’t know if the reason for placing it there was shame around a mother pumping milk for her child, but the fact remained that a woman working on, say, the 6th floor of the building would have to come down all those floors and walk to the end of this corridor in the basement, just to reach this dimly lit room. That alone deters a woman whose schedule is already full of meetings to take out time to pump.”

And then there was the design.

The room had a very low couch. Anybody who has pumped knows that one needs to sit upright for the pump to work properly.

There was no desk in the room even though a woman can very well work on a laptop while pumping. This took away the employee’s ability to multitask and made pumping something that she had to do exclusively, losing out on precious working hours in the process.

The biggest shock for Menaka was that the room had no power supply point in which to plug an electric breast pump.

“It was clear that the room was designed by a man who did not know and did not care to ask the first thing about how pumping works.”

Menaka says that if the Covid crisis had not forced her company into a work-from-home mode, she would not have been able to continue breastfeeding her child for too long after resuming work due to the sheer bad design of the pumping room.


Why don’t you just ask?

I hear you, discerning reader, “Why don’t women just ask for these facilities?” Why moan and groan about it, why stop breastfeeding your babies, and why quit your jobs for want of basic needs that – surely – any sensible boss will grant if only you asked?

Surely.

Alisha was overjoyed when she landed a job working for a flagship government programme. The office was situated in a five-star hotel to boot. Surely nothing could go wrong here.

When Alisha joined, she realized that even though there were 2 women in the 10 member team that sat on her floor, both the toilets on the floor were gents toilets. The other lady would go to another floor to use the Ladies Toilet there.

Alisha, being the eternal optimist like you, dear reader, raised the issue with her boss – a senior IAS officer who took swift action to designate one of the toilets as a Ladies Toilet. Alisha and her other female colleague were overjoyed.

However, in the weeks that followed, she began to realize the consequences for a woman who dares to ask for a place to pee.

“Apparently, my male colleagues found the toilet reallocation so intolerable that they resorted to spreading rumours about me. They began fabricating malicious gossip about my relationship with the IAS officer, because ‘why else would he so readily grant her request?’ One day, the cleaning ladies came to me looking uncomfortable. They told me that every day, after I left the office, the men in my team would go to the newly designated Ladies Toilet and urinate all over it to show the women our place. These are the kinds of consequences women can expect for demanding basic facilities in Indian offices. I cannot describe how sick and disgusted I felt.”


No Story to Tell

I spoke to around two dozen women working at a range of workplaces – from field offices to government buildings to the swanky offices of large multinational corporations.

Not one of them had a daycare center at work.

Not one of them had a sanitary pad vending machine installed in the ladies’ toilet.

Many did not even have a separate bin for the disposal of menstrual waste.

There is no single story I can tell when almost every organization – even in the privileged world of the service sector – staunchly refuses to recognize the infrastructure that can make women employees’ lives much better.

There is no single story I can tell about it because working mothers in every office are getting scoffed at and called less serious about work because they have to leave work at 6 pm to pick up their children from daycare before it closes for the day. No working father seems to be bearing the brunt of this.

There is no single story I can tell about it because women at every Indian workplace have been forced to develop a super-secret underground network that gets activated when a woman whispers to another those five magic words, “Do you have a pad?”

And there is no single story I can tell when every working woman can be seen doing the power-walk of shame – shivering in the air-conditioner, running her mental GPS to locate the least far ladies toilet, hoping it will be clean while hiding a sanitary pad in the folds of her Office Sweater.

Thank you, Men of 1960s America. And every other man and woman boss who came after them and didn’t think to check their math.

Happy 2021, y’all.

Mahima


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