About once every 5.4 days, I am asked - often by a man - if The Hot Breakfast will play host to a women's network.
To these requests I usually smile demurely and insist that The Hot Breakfast is a community for both genders (sometimes I say all genders, when I really want to make a point), and yes we try to balance the mix at each event, and no it’s not a dating thing (but, you know, sometimes…).
However, such occasions always give me pause for thought. What are my views on rallying the sisterhood?
It's a topic that is particularly on my mind this week. Lest you've blocked your ears and eyes and have been drumming a large tin can for the past month, let me remind you that it is International Women's Day this Thursday.
As a result, every business wants to make a public declaration about how important we women are to them; every shop wants to offer us a promotion on everything that is pink and pastel (but, you know, empowering); and every organisation - yup, including this one - is scrambling to invite us to “exclusive” events populated "only" by women.
It's easy to sound cynical. Actually, I'm not. (Or at least, not always.) Like much to do with the strangely febrile tension between the sexes at the moment, I feel wary and confused about what all this celebration really means.
But I do have some views about networks that are exclusively for women, based both on my experience of running Hot Breakfast events and my own hallowed ability to secrete oestrogen. Many of these are very contentious, but I think it's as well to be open about them - and I'd love to hear your views, whether they are sympathetic or not.
First, let me be clear that on the occasions when we run Hot Breakfasts that are just for women then they are amazingly, awesomely, almost palpably powerful. There's a raw energy about them that is both impossible to ignore and difficult to explain.
This intrigues me because they are not events at which “women’s issues" are necessarily forefront of the conversation. It doesn’t become some coven where we all stir our porridge and cast aspersions about male counterparts while sharing tips for strengthening the pelvic floor. In fact, often the content of the conversation doesn’t obviously differ from that which might be had at any other event.
Having pondered it long and hard, my best guess is that this atmosphere flows directly from the mentality that people bring to the table. An invitation to join a gathering of the sorority contains an implicit promise of supportiveness, of solidarity, of collaboration. That creates an environment that is ripe for relationship-building.
Relationships are duly built and I think that it is that sense of connectivity that makes these events so galvanising and uplifting, rather than some peculiar quality that is generated by the throng of the fair sex per se.
So, if tickets for these events fly out the door (which they do), if they are virtually guaranteed hits (which they are) and if I love introducing bold, brilliant, generous women (which I do), why do we not host more all-women Hot Breakfasts?
Well, I suppose because they make me feel uneasy. And they make me feel uneasy for the following key reasons:
I am deeply suspicious of the old male clubs that refuse to permit women. They seem a dusty legacy of an era of breeches and servants and lunchtime port. And I can't convince myself that it's not at some level hypocritical to set up something that is equally discriminatory against men, despite all the arguments that they are needed to give women the leg up that men have had for centuries.
(To be clear, I think there is the world of difference between networks that are "women-focussed" (i.e. involve men) and those that disbar men entirely. The Women of the Future network is an example of the former, and I have benefited from its support enormously without feeling like I am doing so at the expense of my male equivalents.)
Surely we all want to be part of a community where mutual respect is not secured simply because of the symmetry of our chromosomes? I want be heard, and to listen to you, because we've both got something worth saying, not because we're members of a certain sex.
"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company." - Anne, Persuasion - Jane Austen
I think that many people (men especially) feel quite paralysed by the politics of the debate right now and barely dare raise their voices. Things have become so toxic that it sometimes feels like we no longer know how to deal with each other. I don't think that we improve that by hanging out in separate changing rooms, with the doors barred to the people who are the "problem". Surely it makes sense to empower everyone who wants to ditch the patriarchy, rather than let the issue crash around vitriolic internet forums and echo in congregations that are already converted?
So we will undoubtedly continue to run Hot Breakfasts just for women from time to time when the subject justifies it (like this Wednesday) but our intention remains to build a community where everyone can contribute: where men can support women just as women can support men. If you have suggestions for how this aim might be better or faster realised then we would welcome them.
In the meantime, I will continue re-evaluating the matter every 5.4 days.