Though it feels like a breach of ‘girl code’, I often find that I feel more at ease when amongst groups of men than I do groups of women (I sometimes find large groups of women a little intimidating). I don’t know why it should be that I often feel more comfortable around men – I don’t subscribe to the generalisations that men are less ‘bitchy’ or ‘complicated’, I just find that, apart from with my close female friends, I feel that I can be more authentically myself around men. It probably helps that I’ve grown up around my brother and my Dad, both of whom are great role models in different ways (and great company to be around), and when I was younger I always enjoyed playing Street Fighter and climbing trees with the boys more than I did combing Barbie’s hair. (I know this is total gender stereotyping – but I’m just recalling the activities that felt more ‘me’ as a child).
I never felt excluded by the boys when I was younger and never questioned that there was anything that they could do that I couldn’t. I knew that I was just as good at football as them, I could destroy them at Street Fighter (Ryu forever), I always got picked for the Man Hunt team and everyone knew I had the best collection of Mountain Biking UK magazine stickers. Except for not being able to play in the football team at school because I was a girl (which I mentioned in this awesome article I was asked to contribute to about women in business), I never felt counted out, or treated differently, for being a girl. At work, I’m part of a women’s network to address the imbalance of women in leadership roles, and it’s my genuine belief that one of the best things we can do to support this is to improve women’s confidence and help women achieve their potential at work – I don’t think there is as much of a sense of overt discrimination as there was in the workplace five or ten years ago (though I can only speak for my own workplace, and I’m well aware that things differ across organisations and especially across industries).
But this week has been a challenge to me. This week has pushed me out of my comfort zone and into an area that has made me feel out of place and excluded. This week I have felt a range of emotions, and all because of… a football game. I won’t go into it in too much detail here because it’s more of a real-life situation than I would normally blog about and I don’t want to be seen to be airing dirty laundry, but essentially I thought it would be a bit of fun to volunteer to play at a football match between two of our offices next week. I thought it would be a laugh; a good way to get a bit more fitness activity into my week without slogging it on the treadmill and something different to do on a Tuesday night. (And when I was asked if I wanted to go and watch, my first reaction was no, I want to go and play).
img credit: danielledowling.com
But it hasn’t felt fun. The more people talked about the fact that my name was on the team list, the more sensitive and self-conscious I felt. The more people said they were surprised that I would be playing, said they hoped I wouldn’t get hurt, asked if I was fit enough, or asked how many other matches I’d played in (with a raised eyebrow), the more I wanted to pretend it had all been a joke, and walk away. I decided to ease myself in gently and play in a little five-a-side game with some other people from work on Friday and it just left a sour taste in my mouth. I enjoyed it, but frankly, I just wasn’t very good. I wasn’t as good as the boys, and they knew it. There was the odd exclamation of surprise when people passed to me, the laughs as people said ‘man on’, a lot of apologies from me when I panicked and lost the ball to the other team, and a lot of time spent with a knot in my stomach wondering what I was doing there, and feeling like everyone else was probably thinking the same. All of a sudden, those feelings of comfort and normality I usually found in groups of guys, were gone.
When I got back to work after lunch, I saw a girl in the lift who I had spoken to that morning about playing. “I heard your team lost,” she said with a wry smile. “I don’t think anyone was keeping score,” I said. But she was insistent that she knew someone else who had played, and that the team I was in ended up several goals down. Because it was the team with the girl in. That’s what I felt the subtext was. I’m sure it was my own paranoia, but I felt talked about. The butt of a joke. The girl who tried, and failed.
Even now, thinking about potentially playing on Tuesday gives me an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. Half of me wants to prove something to the people who asked if I am ‘fit enough’ or said they were surprised to see a girl on a list of 25 boys. But half of me is worried that if I do go, I will prove them right – prove that my name doesn’t belong on that list, prove that girls who haven’t played football since they were kids should stick to kickabouts in the park. For now, I’m watching my football socks fluttering on the washing line and wondering if I should count myself out, before someone else does. And another part of me is thinking about all of the people who feel like this all of the time – the one person in a group of others who is different, who never feels good enough, who never feels like they ‘fit’. It has made me realise that for some people, this isn’t the emotions caused by a silly, casual Tuesday night activity, but the reactions they get from the major choices they have made in life. There are women all over the world who are constantly told they are ‘brave’ and asked if they will ‘be okay’ or ‘be able to keep up’ for opting to choose a career or a life path that is usually dominated by men. It’s just a football match, I tell myself. It’s just a football match. I’m still not sure.