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Have you read Alice in Wonderland? Well, if you haven’t, the fairytale has a golden key which unlocks a magical place for Alice. On a muggy September afternoon in 2018, I felt like Alice when a kind lady officer handed me a key that opened the door to wonderland for me.

It was a clean washroom with running water and a toilet-paper roll. Technically, the 7-storeyed government building in Delhi had washrooms for women on each floor, but most were out of order. Until then, I used to go without water for hours, ignore stomach cramps, and with no hotel nearby, it meant a day’s reporting without access to a clean washroom. Also, I realized that while many women worked in the building, only a few of the senior staff could get that key.

The mythical clean washroom is not a public versus private company issue. This is India Inc’s unspoken and perhaps biggest challenge in bringing about diversity and inclusion. Top executives seem unaware how many women in their offices suffer from urinary tract infections (UTIs) and fall ill. This leads to absenteeism and a drop in productivity, with so many of us already out of the race, injured. Unlike maternity leave, there are no congratulatory cards or loving words offered on returning to office after a UTI-related absence. Most colleagues would not even know, and one’s concerned female coterie will give you the usual cold advice: Crouch, balance, sanitize, repeat.

Not everyone can have a corner office, but a clean washroom should not be a privilege of the top few in India Inc. One evening, I needed one after a meeting at the Delhi office of a large corporate. There were several washrooms for women, but one had to cross an attached terrace to access them. Walking across an empty terrace to a dimly-lit washroom didn’t feel right. So I waited for another traveller whose needs were as urgent as mine and tagged along with her.

Women returning to their workspaces after the covid pandemic have been found to be fewer than men. Fewer women rejoining work means lower chances of an agitation for their right to more comfort stations.

Today, as India Inc recites incantations on diversity and inclusivity by rote, new layers of complexity have emerged in the washroom challenge: Where should the third gender go? Pallavi Pareek, founder of Ungender Legal Advisory, notes how companies across sectors talk about inclusion in the form of hiring third-gender candidates, but rarely offer them washrooms. “Some companies ask them to use the washrooms meant for the specially-abled," Pareek told me, “How does one convey this to a [new recruit]? What impression does it give those who otherwise use the washroom?"

For decades, India Inc adopted a binary outlook on gender, but today’s new-age firms are comfortable with those who tick no gender box. Some employees may even be transitioning from one gender to another.

“Companies have said that a majority of their employees are not comfortable with the idea of other genders using their washrooms. And rarely do firms have space, access, money and most importantly, the will to look into plumbing systems and create a set of completely neutral washrooms," Pareek said.

What explains this resistance to more gender-neutral washrooms? I chanced upon a discussion on Twitter where some said they would like to have separate designated areas, raising “hygiene" challenges. I am not sure if ‘hygiene’ is the only predominant reason. The issue is complex. Washrooms are that private space where unkosher conversations take place. It is a space beyond jurisdictions and multiple genders with access to that space would require a complete change of mindset.

While diversity hiring continues, the washroom suffers neglect. As economist Mitali Nikore noted, both government and private offices in smaller towns and cities rarely have washrooms that women can comfortably use. “In my visits, some of the washrooms for women were either under maintenance or under construction, and this despite having a fair share of women employees," said Nikore. While many firms are pushing for creche facilities, well-equipped washrooms don’t get sufficient attention. Nikore Associates analysed 500 diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives implemented by Nifty50 companies over the last two years. Only about 38% of companies had childcare and creche facilities in their offices. If one shifts focus from the permanent staff in offices to manufacturing units and temporary workers, the problem is even more acute.

Washroom issues, if not solved, can upset corporate plans. Think of last December’s labour protests at an iPhone-manufacturing plant of Foxconn near Chennai. “For women who assembled iPhones at a Foxconn plant in southern India, crowded dorms without flush toilets and food sometimes crawling with worms were problems to be endured for the paycheck," said a Reuters report. When 250 workers fell ill after company-given meals, it led to protests that culminated in the factory’s temporary shut-down.

Diversity and inclusivity plans will fructify only once people’s most basic needs are met. The demand of ‘washrooms for all’ must grow just as loud as ‘equal pay for all’.

Devina Sengupta is a Mint reporter covering workplaces and education.

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