This year, I spent International Women's Day with 23 men from Middlesbrough. I can think of worse ways of spending it.
First of all, can I just make one thing clear. I am not a fan of "Special Days"- full stop.
I appreciate they have their purposes in that they focus people's minds on certain aspects, on charities, good causes etc.
But, I feel Mother's & Father's Day, Valentine's Day - are merely a commercial ploy to make us feel we have to buy cards and flowers. And feel guilty if we don't.
All these days... non-smoking day, hamster day, give-a-friend-a-hug-day (OK - just made those up) - who comes up with these ideas? Is there an international register to which you report them and pick suitable dates? A "Global Day Database"?
Anyway - back to Middlesbrough.
I sell a temporary flood barrier for a living. In fact, I am the UK Manager for the company.
Part of my job description is to provide training for staff who deploy this barrier in a flood emergency situation.
My client had hired me and my partner to come and train their staff. We have done this many times before, for various clients, so this was nothing new.
I usually start off with a theoretical presentation, in a class room. (Or a portacabin...)
After this comes the outdoor, hands-on part of the training, where the candidates are divided into two groups. I take one, my partner takes one. For the rest of the day and the following day, we do nothing but physical training in various types of barrier deployment, trouble shooting etc.
Now - my partner is a man and I am a woman. And in 99% of the courses, our candidates are men. This should not make any difference, but - I feel it does. And here comes my point:
From my perspective, it all starts in the class room. The looks, the expectations.. As a woman, I feel scrutinised. I feel I am either checked out for my technical knowledge and my engineering skills. Or I am checked out for the size of my breasts, slenderness of my waist or tightness of my bottom when I turn towards the whiteboard. This might just be in my own imagination, but - it still remains MY impression of the moment, how I experience it, judging from the looks I get.
My group listens intensively to what I have to say. We go out and they still listen to me explaining how the system works. After all - I do know more than they do in this instance. That is, sort of, the whole point of the exercise. I teach them - not the other way around.
As the training continues, coming into the second day - they all realise I know what I am talking about. I feel respected, I feel like one of them. We are equal. They can take me being the boss and I am not making a thing of it. I explain, I correct. They listen, they follow my advice, they learn.
After packing away, we say goodbye to each other, with the knowledge that they have learnt something they weren't aware of two days ago. They are happy and confident.
I am, too. End of a good day.
This day though, I realised I had forgotten to hand over a paper to one of them. Therefore, I enter their store area (imagine a part of a warehouse, in a big industrial yard). The two men I wanted to speak to are relaxing, having a little chat between them, before going home. The place is full of tools. It smells of oil and industrial dust. But the most striking presence are that of the naked women who decorate their walls, their lockers, their boards - their... everything. Tits & Ass galore.
They are 'reading' the Sun, whilst having a brew.
I can feel their embarrassment. Surprised by my 'visite impromptue', they quickly throw the papers underneath their makeshift table, hoping I hadn't noticed. In all honesty, that move was not very helpful, as they still would have had to spend a week to rid these walls from their decorative elements.
As a woman, I now feel torn between two worlds. I'm either the equal partner, knowledgeable about techniques and engineering matters and therefore accepted as 'one of the lads'. Or I am a titillating piece of meat, where tits & ass are the main attributes and where lamb shanks and pork cutlets are my main competitors. The Whore or the Madonna. Classic.
Strangely enough - I am the one who gets embarassed. Not in a prudish way, but because I feel 'ashamed' on their behalf. I emphatise with them. I feel their pain, their dilemma, how they also are stuck in this gender inequality which brings us nowhere.
I have been here before, worn the wet T-shirt. I have had trainings where one minute, I am 'one of the team' and where next minute, I am surrounded by hi-viz clad men who are dribbling over the nipples of some unfortunate teenage page three girl.
My Women's Day would be one where these roles had been reversed. I don't think men can fully understand how it feels - as a woman - to always be surrounded by naked women, thrown in your face at petrol stations, news agents' and book shops - making you feel inadequate.
Imagine for a minute it was the other way around. No, honestly - think about it!
What if men would see nothing but naked men (and no women), whilst queuing up to the Tesco till?
What if they had to work alone in a work place with mainly women, being examined from top til toe and not listened to until they had 'proven' themselves to show they knew what they were talking about? Only to be paid less at the end of the day.
Here's me hoping we can abolish future Women's Days. In my world, we are all individuals - be it men or women. Enjoying our differences, our sexuality and loving each other - but on equal terms.