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Coming out of the Water Closet

The Indian Express - December 02, 2012

Women's toilets are climbing the corporate ladder

I am obsessed with office toilets. I thought that was something I should not talk about ever, but a recent opinion piece in a business newspaper has given me the courage to come out of the water closet. It was called "India needs a latrine policy", written by a friend who has also authored a book on game theory. My obsession goes back three decades. After my course at IIM-A, during placements, many employers said they didn't want women because of many reasons; one was that they didn't have ladies toilets and would have to build them. Of course, she who must not be named (for fear of royalty payment being extracted), would say that the real reason for my obsession is that I never progressed beyond the anal stage of my personality. But as any working woman of my vintage will tell you, in those days, it was horror to have to attend long meetings, or worse, go for an on-site consulting assignment, in a manufacturing company.

I was assigned two clients in the early years at a market research agency. Both had huge impressive factories, great canteens for workers, terrific landscaping, and no toilets for women. Male colleagues on the team used to roll their eyes and sigh in annoyance at being made to stand guard at remote toilets while we women rushed in to do our jobs. Remote meant really remote where no one usually went. Once, in a building site under renovation, my colleague who stood guard fell off his perch and broke his shoulder. Needless to say, whenever (male) colleagues in the office asked him what had happened, he told them the story embroidering it each time. No one commiserated with me. They all had the look of "What was the matter with you, couldn't you hold out for a few hours or didn't you anticipate this before you left for the meeting?" My protestations that it was a day-long meeting fell on deaf ears. Presently, one of these client companies acquired a Japanese collaborator. With it, came translators. Since there were fewer men, they had to hire women. The managing director (MD) beamed at me and said, "Now you have no cause to worry, we are building a women's toilet." Of the design of that toilet, the less said the better. User empathy was not their forte.

Now, of course, things are different in many companies. I am delighted to report that where the CEO is a woman, the women's toilets are absolutely terrific. I remember hearing my women friends working in a famous MNC tell me of the time when the US parent had appointed a woman as boss of the head office in India. The night before her visit, the entire flooring of the women's toilet was redone and ivory-handle hair brushes appeared near the mirror. Until then, the administration manager used to respond to complaints from women employees with a smirk and (he thought) a humorous line about how he couldn't fix what he didn't know and he didn't know because the entrance door said "women". Having been seasoned and hardened by this basic inequality, I now have no qualms demanding better on this count.

In one of the companies where I am a director, I was pained to see that there was no full-length mirror. I asked the company secretary and the assistant to the MD (both, women) why they hadn't asked for it, something so essential to the well-being of our tribe. They said they often had, but the admin said it was a "time waster" device and so, as a policy, it shouldn't be there. I passed a note to a rather bewildered MD and, lo and behold, by the next quarter, we had our full-length mirror. I told the young ladies not to be bullied in the name of gender equality and professionalism: "Never be embarrassed to ask for what you really need, whether it is a better maternity leave policy or a full-length mirror, let's not be apologetic that god made us different". Of course, I had to work harder to appear smarter in the audit committee for the next three months lest the men thought I was lightweight.

It is not uncommon in some older school companies to see toilets labelled "Men", "Executives" and "Women". But the government is definitely a more equal opportunity employer than corporate India. In a government institution I visited recently, I saw a separate "Lady Executives" toilet. Some companies have unisex toilets, which makes sense. But then these should be designed properly as stand-alone entities. In cubicles with common mirrors and basins, women can't fix their make-up or their clothes.