Being part of the team
At the risk of offending equality campaigners, I’m aware that I’ve gravitated backwards regarding my working relationships with the opposite sex. I’m surprisingly alright with it now that I’m closer to retirement age than I was when the natural male-female interaction became skewed for fear of sexual inappropriateness or harassment accusations.
When I was much, much younger and prettier, I was sexually assaulted at the office where I worked. It was a very physical attack which hurt and bruised me, but I meekly decided not to make a formal complaint for a number of reasons. Firstly, my attacker was senior to me with a wife and two small children. Secondly, I was relatively new to the company and keen to progress in my career without inviting any unnecessary obstacles. Thirdly, there was a culture at the time which cannot be compared with today. In other words: things like that happened and I regretfully accepted it had happened to me. I never forgot it though. No-one who has ever been sexually assaulted forgets how it made them feel.
Of course that kind of thing can’t be allowed to happen – I’m opposed to that sort of thing!
In my second career as a teacher, my time has, until recently, been spent with mostly female colleagues which is not unusual in education. But since the beginning of this academic year, I have found myself based in a male-dominated department of the large college I work in, alongside staff with whom I’d previously had little contact. It’s been an unexpectedly pleasant change.
I realised they had all been working together for a long time and having two new female English teachers in their space was perhaps something they wouldn’t have chosen. So mostly adopting a keep-your-head-down and get-on-with-it approach, I didn’t seek or expect much attention, so little attention, in fact, that on one occasion, I unwittingly managed to surprise all my male colleagues by emerging from a cupboard in the staffroom and shocking one of them into gasping: “How long have you been living in there?”
The two of us came as a pair, almost an invasion as far as our male colleagues were concerned, and we had been happily working together in another department for a while. A nickname has since been bestowed on my female team-mate (Hockeysticks, on account of her posh accent) and I suppose on me too as I’m sometimes referred to as The Other One and more recently, Typhoid Mary, on account of my insistence on continuing to work during a spell of illness, risking their health.
Within a few days of us settling in to our new environment, I felt it necessary to assure the guys that Hockeysticks and myself were classy enough to say F-, and the team leader laughed: “Now you’re part of the team.” Apologising every time they realised some swears had been uttered was becoming a strain for them, but they were concerned about offending either of us.
No-one bothers to modify their language or conversation any longer which is why I was recently surprised to hear myself loudly deploring: “What has your foreskin got to do with me?” A sentence I never thought I would need on a regular workday and one which had more impact than the often repeated: ‘Too much information!’ when relaxed conversation becomes intimate.
Humour is one coping strategy which clearly works for these guys. They would no doubt consider their humour sophisticated – all of them being academic, accomplished, passionate and professional, but they are not above taking a moment to be, or look silly and they know how far they can go. Before a recent demotivating data update meeting (yawn), we were invited by one of the team to don vivid, vastly oversized sombreros and it didn’t occur to us to decline. It was a small attempt to ease some of the tension which builds up over the first term. When eventually asked by the Director of Learning what was “with the hats,” everyone replied from beneath their brims, one after the other: “What hats?”
I knew I was beginning to be accepted as one of them when I was asked: “Can I come and stay with you until all this blows over?” during the beginning of term chaos and what sort of woman would seriously object to being addressed by a bearded workmate with the words: “You’re a woman; do you want some chocolate?” I did fancy some chocolate and it was clearly meant as a joke, not an invitation to assert my feminist self. Just ‘banter’ as the students would say.
That said, I have never been comfortable with touching my co-workers and actively discourage it in my classes. Now, however, it is not unusual to be given a hug from someone on the team when the moment calls for one. The office/staffroom we are in is a pressure release unit where teasing, joking, listening and cake or biscuits are available for mini-meltdowns, struggling on through sickness and stress as well as the upsetting moments. It’s normal to touch in circumstances such as these and now, when arms are opened to me, I won’t back away – not for fear of offending, but because it’s natural human behaviour, often extended because the one offering a hug needs to do it as much as the person who will be hugged benefits. It is often said that we spend more waking time with our workmates than with our families which can starve us of warmth if our working relationships are cool.
The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different.
In our team, there is clearly mutual respect. We don’t need legislation to remind us of our obligations to our workmates. We are individuals who are safe with each other and learning how to treat one another, not because we are all the same, but because we are not. The aspect of our identity which becomes the most important at any one time is the one that marks us out as different in that particular instance whether it is age, origin, skill, status or anything our identity is composed of. None of my comrades would hesitate to lampoon another for any of these reasons, so why should making fun of someone because they are female (or male) be any different?
Recently in conversation with the team, I mentioned I realise I have an issue with objectifying women. The response was: “Stop doing it then.” I don’t know why I needed to mention it really.