The All-Woman Workplace

My Mamma had taught in an all girls high school, the same place I did my schooling from, which means for over twenty years of her teaching career, my mother was in an all-women staffroom. I didn’t think much about the implications back then. All I knew was that the teachers in my mother’s staffroom shared a lot of recipes and we in turn reaped the benefits. From my limited knowledge of adult women friendships, I gathered that the staffroom was a warm place where women shared their woes. Advice, solicited or otherwise, flowed free, as did suggestions and recommendations. From fabric to jewellery, from bargains to vacations, everything could, and would be discussed. Those were days when job-hopping was almost unheard of, and loyalty to one’s workplace was something one would be proud of. My mother’s colleagues, who later taught me in class when I reached high school, were a constant fixture of my childhood, whether it be in our dinner time conversations or during the occasional social visit to each other’s place.

Back then I obviously didn’t think too much about how studying in an all-girls school would shape my life. I reached college, and started getting used to the idea of sharing classroom space (and later, bench space) with boys. I realised I was not the “I need someone to go to the restroom with me” girl, and neither was I comfortable indulging in gossiping like most other girls loved to. The difference became stark when I started living in a hostel during my graduation days. Going out shopping in a group, even for underwear, was a “thing”, something I could never wrap my head around. Gathering around dissecting Cosmopolitan magazines, pretending to be naive and innocent and taking pride in “not knowing anything” also turned out to be a thing. It didn’t take me long to understand that my vehement refusal to move in a herd had caused me to be excluded from the all-women excursions. To say I was ostracised would be a little harsh, but it was also true that I was declared a misfit. Towards the end of the last year, the girls around me stopped inviting me even, assuming my refusal as a granted.

From then on, I had always been more comfortable hanging around boys. I found talking to them uncomplicated, and would rather spend hours cracking up goofy jokes with them than struggle to be a part of a girls group, trying hard to read between the lines, wondering if someone was being sarcastic and if that sarcasm was directed at me. It’s not like I didn’t have girl friends. I did. Really good ones too! But it was always one-to-one friendships. I was never a part of a BFF group, and while I thought it was pretty cool to have a gang of girls you could count on no matter what, I realised that it was only the lucky ones who managed to find a whole group of people humming at the same frequency. My selectively social nature coupled with an absolute inability to keep up with tongue-in-cheek comments in a sassy conversation because I would be rendered temporarily dumb, ensured that I was never comfortable in a large group, and preferred a small coffee-for-two affair over a sixteen seater dining table affair any given day.

Getting married and traipsing from one country to another didn’t offer me many opportunities to make many new friends, and the ones I did were again, one-to-one friendships. I had hoped I would someday be a part of a Mom’s group, and we would grow stronger as friends as our kids grew older but even that turned out to be a fantasy (I have only my selectively social nature to blame for this though)

And then this job happened, and for the first time in a years I found myself in an all-women workplace. I hadn’t given this much thought until today, and that’s because we had to undergo a training workshop where our facilitator asked us what it was like to work in an all-women staffroom. I told her it felt free because we could speak our minds out, because after all we still have hangovers of living in a society where certain topics are still taboo in  mixed-gender company. I’ve had candid conversations with my colleagues that I don’t think I ever would have had with another man. Then again, I have never really worked with men before, so maybe I am not the right judge of this anyway. But I can tell you one thing. No male colleague would have noticed my new earrings or my new dress or let me know that my scarf was not matching with my shirt so could I please put the scarf away? No male colleague would understand my love-hate relationship with food, nor appreciate my shameless display when I stand up and tug at my skirt to show that I have lost inches. The way we women are emotionally connected, the very warmth the place exudes, I wonder if it would be the same otherwise. Learning to tread my toes so I am not stepping on anyone’s, and getting used to being a part of a huge girls gang is still something I have to work on, given how I had always shied away from them, but I know I am right on the verge of getting so comfortable I can’t imagine working at any other place.

Of course there’s talk about clothes and jewellery and recipe and bargains and sales. Why, just the other day I asked my colleague who sits next to me if she wanted to go to the washroom with me!

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