Here is the new laptop bag I bought for myself at Christmas. I bought it because of its big practical strap, making it much easier to carry my heavy laptop close into my body. But I’ll admit: it has a great colour and a fantastic print! I love wearing it, and not just because it makes the weight of my laptop less of a burden. It is unlike anything else anyone else wears at work. But I’m not expecting to hear compliments about it for a while yet.
“You’ve changed something about your hair.” said a work colleague the other day, and promptly blushed bright scarlet.
As a matter of fact my hair changed from mousy blonde to vivid red a whole nine months ago: nine months in which I have repeatedly visited the office, spoken to colleagues, and held meetings. This is the first time anyone has mentioned my hair, and knowing the people I work beside as well as I do, I am impressed that anyone finally summoned up the courage. This is because my colleagues are programmers, and this is what life with programmers is often like. They are first predominantly male, and second predominantly cerebral. Mere changes to appearance are an irrelevance; an irrelevance to be discretely ignored.
When I was a young woman, I used to blend in, in the way many young female programmers do, by wearing jeans and baggy T-shirts. My cover was blown when I became pregnant. My pregnancy was far from discrete: from the fourth month I could have been mistaken for a sofa. Maternity wear was not as varied as it is now and the only thing I could find to cover my vast and swelling form was a black and white checked pinafore. I wore this pinafore day in and day out for months on end until the birth and then, to my mortification, had to wear it for some months afterwards. There was no disguising to my colleagues the awful truth of what had happened to me – I had become female.
For the first few years of motherhood, my “mum” uniform was not too dissimilar from my old “programmer” uniform of jeans and T-shirts, but the cat was now firmly out of the bag. As I grew older and more confident, I began to wear more feminine clothes – brighter colours, skirts, rediscovering floral, lipstick earrings, and no more “building site” shoes.
And my colleagues were greatly embarrassed, scurrying around with heads down, and very little eye contact. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t go out of my way to embarrass them – I don’t show cleavage, I don’t do stilettos, I don’t have piercings in unexpected places. I don’t want to frighten the horses. I am, however, obviously not of the same world as they are. That bag is a statement that I am not, after all, unisex.
I don’t regret one bit that my colleagues work so hard to ignore my outrageous tendencies. It is a huge benefit to me: I have hardly ever felt that my gender matters at work. It is embarrassing to my colleagues that I happen to be a woman, but I have rarely had to worry abut sexual advances, or innuendoes. If I am in the middle of a lively discussion, the only thing I need to worry about is whether or not I am right, not whether my bra strap is showing.
A brief stint in a more “lively” office, with a strong masculine culture, was enough to make it clear just how difficult office life can be for a lone woman – there I was the constant butt of sexist jokes, comments about my appearance, and laddish pranks. It was impossible for me to work in that environment. I was very relieved when my stint ended and I was able to return to my office of mild-mannered, socially-challenged males. How ironic it is: because my gender is invisible there, I feel free to be as outrageously feminine as I please!