When I was in my late 30's and a single mom, who had only ever been a mom, I went back to school to be a carpenter. Now, mind you, it was recommended that I be a cook, or a hairdresser or a secretary, since those were more womanly pursuits and I would have the most success in those areas.
We were dashing headlong into the 21st century and I was told to be a cook? Not a chef. A cook. Now I'm not casting aspersions on that noble profession, but I have to wonder why my dreams of doing something less mainstream, less gender-normal, were shot down.
I got my wish and was put into a vo-tech class of 15 boys and one girl, all of them 16 years old. I was 38 — and a mother. Excellent! I left the whining tirades of my own teen-aged children every morning and spent the day listening to, "So this guy looked at me and I'm all like, who are you looking at? I've got a boyfriend!" and, "What should I do? She keeps talking to this guy and I told him I'd punch his face in if he looked at her again but what if she likes him?" Yea. It was awesome. But, I do think the girl and I definitely taught the boys something about gender equality that year. I quickly became the mom to all of them, and I think that was good, because they saw what "moms" were capable of.
I learned some great things — both about wood and about myself. For instance, did you know that 1" of wood equals 12" of concrete where insulation is concerned? I learned that I could measure within 1/256th of an inch. I could identify wood by looking at it. I also learned that I could retain more than water. I had goggles, a measuring tape and a carpenter's pencil. I used manly power tools and was ready to conquer the world (or at least remodel it).
My first job was working at a cabinetmaking shop in Worcester, Massachusetts. They made cosmetics counters for fine department stores. Just to give you a visual, I dressed in jeans and flannel shirts, wore a tool belt and goggles, and had to clean sawdust out of my nooks and crannies every morning when I undressed. I worked the overnight shift and was the only woman in a shop of 80 men. I ... had ... invaded ... the ... male ... dominated ... blue ... collar ... workplace.
I was forbidden to use the employee restroom because they liked it filthy and instead had to use the executive washroom upstairs. There were a handful of men who were very supportive and the rest deeply resented my presence. To them it meant no more off-color jokes or swearing and a lot of emotional drama.
Though I think we've made great strides in bringing the genders to a more equilibrious state, there are certain things that will most likely never change:
You can put a man on a contraption that simulates labor during childbirth, but he will never know the indescribable feeling of actually growing and delivering a child.
Women will never fully understand the unadulterated joy that a man feels in winning the heart of a woman and having her say, "Yes," or the inability to share the heartbreak of a, "No," for fear it will somehow diminish him.
There will probably always be organizations exclusively for men that women will probably always try to break into.
There will probably always be organizations exclusively for women that men will want no part of and run screaming if they are mentioned in their presence.
Boys will probably always be born making car noises and chewing their toast into the shape of a gun and girls will probably always nurture baby dolls and stuffed animals.
What we don't understand about the other gender could fill the Library of Congress.
In the final analysis, what can we teach our children about gender equality?
That men don't have to know what labor and delivery feels like to be good fathers.
That girls and women need to learn to appreciate the sensitivity of a good guy.
That it's OK to let boys have their thing and girls have their thing because it doesn't detract from gender equality. Gender equality is really more about opportunities and pay.
That it's OK for boys to play with dolls and stuffed animals because they will one day be daddies.
That it's OK for girls to be rough and tumble because they may one day be police officers, firefighters or soldiers.
That though we may never understand the other gender, we should never clump them into a derogatory joke. We should spend more time appreciating and embracing our differences, accepting that we are equally capable in a lot of things.
People reflect in the workplace what they've been taught at home. Teaching our children these things about gender equality can help make things better for everyone in the future.