When you come from the city, gender discrimination in a no-subject. The fairer sex gets to drive two wheelers and four wheelers, participate in bike rallies, bashfully run a food truck, work shoulder to shoulder, uninhibited, in a gender equal professional atmosphere, swear and laugh out loud unrestrained, attend chatty kitty parties in posh restaurants, be out till late on Saturday nights at a favorite lounge and even have a few shots….it is a completely evolved and liberated world here. Not a stray thought diverts to a distinct possibility that there may be a realm where all this is hard to imagine, leave alone live it.
I get struck with such silent surprised looks each time I put on my safety shoes and walk out for field work in a male dominated industry. The look is laden with not just curiosity but complete awe, looking at a woman in trousers, safety helmet and heavy duty safety shoes! It starts with the Guesthouse concierge who receives me, and double checks the face, because he is probably expecting the opposite gender in safety shoes. The driver who comes to pick me up at the Guesthouse does not expect me to sit in the seat next to him, when I do. The trend continues when I meet officials in the air-conditioned offices with smug attitudes, and can communicate at their level, technically. I sense the most anticipated question that comes up in due course of time, eventually…so are you a mechanical engineer? The relief on their face is tremendous. THE QUESTION is delivered. And I am obliged to answer, just because of my safety shoes.
Women are perceived to be timid, docile, coy, reticent even taciturn at times. Who would have thought of a woman who is eager to walk through pipelines, climb 15 storeys of industrial staircase, get in confined spaces, venture into areas laden with smoke and fumes or walk through knee deep mounds of dust to have a look at the faulty equipment or inspect a prospective area for improvement? Who would expect a woman to talk the talk and walk their walk or shout over the noisy whirring of a giant motor to communicate with the plant operator? Iam sure the annoying thought ‘Oh they sent a woman with safety shoes to site’ or ‘why on earth do women have to do this, that too with safety shoes n all?’ crosses the minds of most whom I interact for the first time. I read their expressions as my voice dissolves in the background decibels of the plant. The impression I probably leave behind is the imprint of my safety shoes on their dusty floor…
I have problem wearing safety shoes too! They are just too uncomfortable, too tight, the sole too hard, the metal cap makes them heavy too…the ankles hurt at the end of the day, carrying the weight of the shoe. But safety comes first. Safety shoes have NO option. The advantages become more defined when I have a revelation- I have to use the rest room for Men, because there is none for Women! This is simply because there are no women with safety shoes on, in the plant. The thick soles insulate me from the soiled bathrooms- so I have now stopped whinging about the soles.
At the end of a tiring day that tests not just my tenacity to work in the harsh sun and the dust, but also my concentration and humour at times, I realise it is all about acceptability. After surviving the grind all day and sharing some eye-openers with the authorities, all of a sudden I begin to receive vibes of warmth, approval and even reception and honest appreciation to the extend of admiration. Bridges have been built. I have become my Customer’s team mate and enjoy the new camaraderie that is now almost genderless. I feel their desperate need for technical help. I now even look like them with soiled clothes, dust patterns on my neck where the sweat has trickled and dried off, and muddy murky safety shoes. We have a good laugh over something irrelevant that a senior has commented, talk of families, travel routes, and even get hints of how to fan out this association. Warm handshakes and gestures follow mumbled goodbyes. What started as a day with reservations and anxiety ends as a super successful and rewarding day.
I return to the Guesthouse, and the attendants and waitrons rush to collect my helmet and offer me a cup of ginger tea. They enquire if I would like to have dinner served in my room, if Iam tired. They ask me which channel I would like to watch on the Telly. The hospitality makes me feel queenly, but I still choose to do the normal thing. I dine in a silent corner, browsing through my Watsapp messages from home. Someone even enquires what I would like for breakfast.
I cannot lift my feet to climb the last couple of stairs to reach my room. I manage to turn the key and flop on the chair. I do not even care to loosen the laces and just push the gruesome safety shoes off my feet. That feeling of relief is incredible, heavenly, after enduring the discomfort and weight all day. I cannot help but smile thinking how my safety shoes catalyse, establish and actually secure the bond with my Customers, at times act as an ice-breaker, and enhance my professional confidence. They help me tread metal grills, worn out and rusty metal floors, slush, spills and sludge. My safety shoes help me stand my ground; in fact, stand on any ground, in any weather, any environment. They are now a wholesome part of my journeys, what I have achieved and what Iam after 23 years in this field. I can now respond with pride and a smile when they call me ‘that woman with safety shoes’ !