My friend Tom was on holiday, for a week, in Barcelona. This is not something I would usually feel the need to report on, but Tom called me the week before he was due to leave, with a proposition: did I want be his holiday cover, while he was away? I am a freelance writer and I needed the cash, so I said yes right away.
I didn’t feel nervous. Tom and I have known each other for years, and I had been in his office a few times. I knew a handful of people by name, and had two other friends working there. It wasn't until my first morning that I finally saw the elephant in the room.
Everyone in the office was a man.
So, OK, this shouldn’t be news. Men exist in the world and some of them even have jobs. But, professionally, I’ve been living in a man-less universe since 2013. I worked full-time at The Pool for two years – all women – and, before that, I worked on an all-female team in a big marketing agency for two years. I racked my brain and slowly realised that, the last time I had a significant work relationship with a man, I ended up falling in love and moving in with him.
Oh, God. Was I incapable of working with men without falling in love with them? Was I going to fall in love with all of these men, too? Would I live the rest of my life in some kind of reverse-Mormon sect, where Tom’s entire office, plus my boyfriend Gavin, would live as sister-wives to me? Did I need to get a bigger house?
Then, the next set of worries set in: did I even know how to work with men, without making them feel bored or uncomfortable? At The Pool, I could place my head on a colleague’s shoulder mournfully when I had cystitis, or a dodgy period, and I could keep it there until I was given adequate sympathy and/or snacks. I could holler across the room to see if anyone had a tampon. I could explain, to a captive audience of 20 women, why I got a “weird vibe” off my gynaecologist. What if I suddenly forgot that the men were men, and started blathering on about my labia?
I could explain, to a captive audience of 20 women, why I got a ‘weird vibe’ off my gynaecologist
I decided I would keep my head down, do my work and not engage too many people, for fear of accidentally asking them for a Lil-Let. I blew my cover – revealing myself as a big, dress-wearing girl – in hour two, when I said, “Bless you,” to my friend Richard when he sneezed. He laughed, as soon as I said it.
“No, tell me.”
“I don't think anyone has said, ‘Bless you,’ in this office, ever.”
Working with men after a long tenure working with women was a little like switching to a very similar regional dialect of the same language. Everyone made their own tea, for one thing: no big rounds, where you burned the top of your knuckles, trying to hold three mugs in each hand, so everyone would feel included in your magnanimous tea run. The Pool even had to impose a strict “you only make tea for the people at your desk” rule, to stop people spending three hours in the staff kitchen, dunking tea bags. Now, I couldn’t seem to ditch the habit.
Cue three men, wincing and taking one headphone out of their ear to hear what I had to say.
“Tea?” I’d repeat.
“Oh. Uh. No, thanks. Have one.”
I plodded to the kitchen, thinking how strange it was to make just one cup of tea.
If you’ve ever worked in a predominantly female office, you’ll know the somewhat mixed feelings of wearing a new dress to work. On the one hand, there’s something loving and sisterly about everyone exclaiming, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, NEW DRESS!” every time you enter the room, as though you’ve just discovered cold fusion. On the other, it can also leave you feeling exhausted and self-conscious. What does three women saying your dress is “cheerful” actually mean? Is everyone having a secret laugh about your ridiculous dress? Meanwhile, in Man Land, your dress remains un-commented on until 4pm, when a woman on the stairs compliments you on it and you want to hug her.
Over the course of my week in Man Land, I found a hundred million things that reminded me how much I love men, and a hundred million that made me miss women. I loved that the meetings in Man Land so often ended with looking at YouTube videos together, and I loved that all the Man Land brainstorms seemed to involve five minutes of throwing Skittles into one another’s mouths from across the room. I love that the men of Man Land think anything is possible, and have big, earnest ideas about “things that might be cool”. I love the swift pragmatism of the women I left behind in Woman Land, as well as the endless empathy Woman Land flowed with. I missed the way two women in Woman Land might argue over sharing a portion of Marmite toast, as if the fun in eating was mostly in making someone else do it with you.
By the time you read this, I’ll be back working from home, feeling like Wendy leaving the Lost Boys in Neverland. Much to Gavin’s relief, I will not be moving any of them in.