There are certain biological differences between men and women.
There, I’ve said it, tada! And I haven’t really said it before, because the second you utter those words total wankers tend to jump on them with a cry of “yes, men are more logical and strong, and women are more emotional and teary, see!” which is… uch… so much bullshit.
Obviously, ladies make babies… boys tend to be warmer in winter and more likely to have haemophilia. There are definite genetic tweaks brought about by that pesky Y-chromosome. And yes, men tend to be physically stronger, and women tend to be more flexible. Which in an age of power tools and central heating, really makes a difference to our daily lives. However I think it’s worth repeating because it tends to be where humanity lets itself down: none of these differences are the same as moral or cultural judgments on the ‘value’ of either sex. Wash and repeat.
Then there are differences that are culturally promoted. Ah, the good ol’ fashioned sexism that we know and love, and hurts us all. Culturally, for example, women are informed that they are more emotionally sensitive than men, and if they’re not its because they’re “ice queens” or “frigid”, while simultaneously and quaintly enough men who wish to express deep and complex emotions, possibly while crying, are rebuked from childhood for being “girly” or “cry babies”. Because isn’t it great to screw up children based on whether they’ve got a uterus or a willy?
I am a lighting designer, and was blown away when I read that approximately 3% of the Association of Lighting Designers are female. 3%. And if you’re wondering whether this is because our lady-brains aren’t wired for… well… wiring… lemme take this moment to say that every woman I’ve met in the business is ridiculously capable and has to fight every hour of every day to receive the same basic respect as our male colleagues. We do precisely what we do, and are constantly, insanely questioned and challenged where they are not. This is an industry where the idea of what a good LD is has all of our qualities… but is male. And there are incredible male lampies out there, including many who are fighting to change this, but also a fair number of perfectly average and pleasant bods, who are allowed to get away with being average in a way the women aren’t. Because our average is proof that we are merely women, not professionals; and even as I write that I wish I had a padded wall to gently bash my head against.
And I’m guilty of this too. I judge my fellow women, because I have to work so hard to get respect, and if I meet someone who is “letting down the side” I feel a flicker of resentment. Hypocritical, vile, absurd resentment of my fellow women. I’m part of the problem too; but I’m trying.
Under these circumstances, I’m acquiring an increasing respect for the power of female role models. At school I remember being asked who my role models were, and not having an answer. I mean, there were easy, obvious things that sounded good in interview – Rosa Parks, Aung Sang Suu Kyi until she stopped caring about the Rohingya genocide, Rosalind Franklin etc. – but those were still sorta names from a textbook. Their meaning was aspirational but distant, distilled. (Michelle Yeoh would have been on the list, obviously, because even though I have little time for actors, she’s Michelle Yeoh. Who, by the way, would totally have kicked Klingon ass in episode 2 of Discovery and thus saved everyone a headache, just saying….)
Then I went into lighting design, and met the incredible Paule Constable, who is one of the few female LDs right at the top of the business, and who consistently produces some of the most incredible lighting you’ll ever see. Moreover, she was generous enough to let me shadow her for a while, and in doing so gave me a model not just for how to work to create something incredible, but also what professionalism in this industry looks like. What it is to be a female professional in a man’s world, and how to find that balance between kick-ass LD, excellent human, feminist and pro, all at once.
But why go into one classically macho job and not also go for a fairly macho hobby? I love learning my flavour of martial art, and my club are great at encouraging women to get involved. But at the senior levels there are still only a couple of women beginning to push through, and the mass, muscle and bulk of my male instructors causes techniques to look different between us. We can adapt sensible principles to work for us in different ways, and every single student finds their own thing that works; but without women to look up to that worm of doubt still seeps sneakily in: can I truly say I stand toe-to-toe with a bigger, stronger man with a similar level of training? (Obviously, in real life I’d run away always, because getting hurts sucks. If that fails, I’m falling back on cunning and rage.)
All of which brings us to Speedy Kat.
I do swimming lessons once a week, and for the best part of a year it’s been the four students in the class. They’ve been, in speed order: Captain Speedy (triathlete), Capitain Vite (French competetive skiier and runner), me (PE school report: “she knows where the ball is going to be but never gets there on time”) and Jack (pub landlord and a man I actually admire more than the speedy dudes). Now, it’s always been established that Captain Speedy and Capitain Vite are not like us lesser mortals. They zip and down of the pool and we paddle along in their wake, and for ages I’ve justifed that one with a cry of “well, they’re not like normal people, are they? And anyway, I’m a woman….”
Then Speedy Kat came to a class. And zooooom she was off! Whooosh she was back. We all doggy paddled along in her wake and thwoooosh off she goes again. She might be my new hero.
She also blew apart my comfortable, happy rationale of “well, it’s ok, these guys are just stronger than me”. The biological differences that make the men zippy awesome might tell at top competetive levels, but damnit, we’re just four dudes splashing around, and I can be faster, and I can be better and stronger, and bollocks bollocks bollocks all it took was one lesson where one woman came to the class to blast me out of my complacency. Bollocks damnation because there’s an implication here that if I’d only just mustered the will to try harder sooner, I could be better more. But I didn’t. I splashed around and got better at breaststroke and enjoyed myself, but never pushed myself, because the fast men felt like an unobtainable thing. And I was wrong. Shuttered up in so much wrongness, cloistered in my own comfort zone and using the very language of “aren’t we different” that I loathe to keep lazy. Uch so annoyed at myself!
But also, perhaps on a nicer note, so pleased and excited that Speedy Kat came to class. Because I don’t necessarily need to compete with the boys in the class, and I don’t actually need to be super-duper-amazing-awesome at something like this; but to be shown by someone who looks like me what I can do… for all that it’s an easy, obvious and entirely predictable psychological trigger, I’m genuinely shocked and elated at how much it can change my mind.