In her light-hearted take on positive discrimination in the workplace*, Caitlin Moran wrote that when women are the office minority, they can start to feel like pelicans in a camel enclosure at the zoo: “the camels can’t help but look at the pelican beaks oddly, and go off and do ‘camel things’ in the corner, while the pelicans feel awkward and alone, and go on a weird diet, out of self-loathing”.
*I should probably clarify that I’m fairly certain I wasn’t hired as a token woman. Though if I ever do fulfil my long-held ambition to appear on Have I Got News For You next to Ian Hislop, I daresay I’ll feel right at home.
After spending nearly three years working in all-female environments, now being The Only Girl In The Web Team is certainly a change. I can’t say I feel particularly awkward or alone – and weird diets aren’t really my thing, unless anyone’s come up with the “eat nothing but avocado, olive bread and Camembert and look like Kate Moss” plan – but working in a male-dominated team is undeniably different to working in a female-dominated one.
It goes a bit like this…
There is no line
I’m no prude – I’m a firm believer that a bit of good-humoured filth never hurt anyone – but sitting in close proximity to two boys in their early twenties can sometimes make me feel like an extra on the set of The Inbetweeners. There is no level to which they will not sink, no joke they will not make, no innuendo they will leave unuttered. And when their jokes get too much even for me, and I give them an eye-roll and a “oh, come on”, they respond with: “oh look, you’ve upset Mum”. Thanks, guys, thanks a lot.
I can’t complain about being a woman
I have no desire to do this constantly, you understand (I’ve got the blog for that), but just as a sort of occasional disclaimer. “Sorry if I’m a bit ratty today, I’m fighting a tidal wave of inexplicable exhaustion and keep fantasising about being baked into a massive cinnamon bun and having to eat my way out” or, “my, um, Red Wedding’s in full swing, so don’t be alarmed if you see me eating Nurofen like they’re Smarties”.
In a previous office, if you gave a heavy sigh and followed it up with “pfff, being a woman is hard,” you’d immediately be whisked into the kitchen, made tea, given chocolate and offered a small pharmacy’s range of painkillers. I said those exact words last week and the man nearest me backed away with his hands held up like he was scared I was going to pull a gun from my desk drawer, and said “you’ve told me too much already”. Mate, I haven’t even got started yet.
Visible emotion is rare…
…and it is easy to scare men by displaying it in a professional setting. Someone came up to my desk not so long ago and said, “I’m going to need your help soon”. I must have been reasonably busy because I simply said, “when?” and the whole room went, “ooohhhhhh”. Guys, that was incredibly mild-mannered. I put actual effort into sounding calm. Don’t “oohhhhhh” me.
When Tier Two Work Best Mate (there’s a complex ranking system) handed in his notice recently, I started crying immediately. Then pulled myself together, but promised him a “monsoon of tears” on his last day (bizarrely, he didn’t look excited by this). I spent the entirety of that evening welling up every ten minutes, which was awkward, because we were out for dinner with Drummer Boy’s family.
When we relayed this to another colleague after the weekend, he looked at me in disbelief. “You cried?” he said, incredulous. “Why?” These two guys sit about six feet apart. They are always at each other’s desks, having muttered conversations or laughing at things on each other’s screens. They’ll miss each other – but will they admit it, out loud, using actual words? Will they heck.
But that said, it’s easier to be upfront
This may have more to do with me than it has to do with working with men, but I feel much less guilty about disagreeing with guys than I do with girls. Rightly or wrongly, I assume that men aren’t going to take it personally if I argue with them about work stuff. I don’t have any qualms about speaking up when I think something’s not fair, or asking for more clarification (Christ, I’m starting to sound like a Bloody Difficult Woman. I’m not, honest. Not at work, anyway).
I think in all-female teams there’s more pressure to be friends as well as colleagues, and to be liked more than respected, whereas in my current situation, I’m not quite as worried about being liked as I have been in the past. As someone whose top three fears are: “having to swim through a swarm of jellyfish”, “being strangled by an octopus”, and “being disliked”, it’s actually a bit strange to find myself not caring whether I come across as lovely or not – but I think it has something to do with accepting there’s already a distance created by the fact that they’re men and I’m a woman. It’s not a chasm, it’s not a hindrance, it’s just a difference of experience. I carry the knowledge that I may have to fight my own corner a bit more, and that actually makes me feel more confident than I would in room full of women. I also send far fewer emails that begin “sorry to bother you” or “I just wanted to check”. Still polite, but I get to the point quicker, and there’s less fluff.
It’s surprising how quickly you fit in
Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but in previous roles where most of my colleagues have been female, it’s taken a while to feel like part of the group. Female friendships have a reputation for being more intense, more complex and at times, more demanding, and that can also be true of working relationships. Feeling at home in a new role can take a while, but in this particular job, I felt I could be totally myself from the get-go. Maybe it’s men in general, maybe it’s my colleagues in particular, but if you can be mocked and mock them straight back, you’re grand.
Oh, how men love to talk
You thought women were the chatterboxes of the workplace? Six months as the only girl in my team has got me well-prepped for a career in politics – I’ve spent an awful lot of that time listening to straight white men bicker, and having things explained to me. And a lot of the time, I’ve definitely needed things explaining to me, without a doubt, but there’s nothing quite like sitting in a meeting with three men and spending most of it listening to them argue good-naturedly with each other.
Men are also exactly as bitchy and liable to gossip as women, so women, don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
…and they’re good at cheering you up
One colleague has a sort of radar for when I’m not at my best. In my second week, after a weekend spent in the cold-steel clutches of anxiety, he called me into his office and asked if I was OK. I’d only been there a matter of days and he clocked that something was amiss. Another of the guys saw me trying not to well up when TTWBM and I were talking about his departure, and just cut straight in with “stop it, Kirsten” – not unkindly, you understand, just the right side of bracing.
So it’s new, and a little strange at times, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. No matter how rough the day’s been – and I’ll be honest, it’s not the most stressful job I’ve had in my short working life – I walk out of the office each evening with a lot of affection for the guys I work with.