The following is a prose version of a Twitter lecture I did yesterday over on my Twitter feed.
It was based on a fascinating article: Robin J. Ely’s and Debra E. Meyerson’s “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms,” which appeared in Research in Organizational Behavior v30 (2010).
The authors begin by examining the ways in which gender has become, for men, a dynamic performance rather than a static state of being. The authors compare how men define masculinity in traditionally male occupations, especially those occupations which entail physical risk: policemen, fire fighters, oil rig workers, soldiers, etc.
The traditional research has shown that men in these occupations try to achieve a kind of hyper-masculinity, but this comes with a cost: excessive risk-taking, poor decision-making, interference in training and recruitment, marginalizing women workers, violating the civil and human rights of workers, and alienating “men from their health, emotions, and relationships with others.”
However, the authors of this paper looked at “high-reliability organizations” (HROs), which are “organizations designed to avoid catastrophes despite operating in dangerous, technologically complex environments.” Studies have shown that male workers at HROs “deviate from conventional masculine norms. In place of toughness, these men avoid taking unnecessary risks, seek help, and inquire after failures.”
The authors of this paper, seeing the basic contradiction, did on-site examinations of two offshore oil rigs, which are HROs.
The authors recap typical male behavior in dangerous workplaces (not HROs): demonstrations of physical prowess, the idealization of strength, bravado in the presence of danger, the projection of the image of sexual potency, assuming the guise of being technically infallible (never admitting mistakes), covering up the mistakes of co-workers, and the “presentation of self as emotionally detached, unflappable, and fearless.”
The two oil rigs visited were in the Gulf of Mexico. As of the mid-1990s, the companies that owned them had a distressingly high rate of worker injury. So the companies built new rigs and went out of their way to do daily business differently, as a way to reduce worker injuries. That production, efficiency, and reliability increased as a result of this change was anticipated, but was not the main reason that the companies changed their ways of doing business.
Quotes from rig workers: it used to be that the “guy that was in charge was the one who could...out-intimidate the others...intimidation was the name of the game.” “They decided who the driller was by fighting. If the job came open, the one that was left standing was the driller.” But after the change in doing business: “we had to be taught how to be more lovey-dovey and more friendly with each other and to get in touch with the more tender side of each toher type of thing. And all of us just laughed at first. It was like, man, this is never going to work, you know? But now you can really tell the difference. Even though we kid around and joke around with each other, there's no malice in it. We are...kinder, gentler.”
The authors pointed out that: “importantly, these men did not repudiate traditionally masculine traits but they did not seem focused on proving them.” [italics in the original].
“Everyone–workers, managers, contractors–attributed this break from the past to the company-wide initiative to make safety its highest priority: ‘macho’ behavior was unsafe and therefore simply unacceptable.”
The authors point out that the ethos of individualism, which in the case of oil rigs is a kind of machismo taken to extremes) has been replaced by collectivism. “These men indicated that they were as committed to giving protection as they were grateful to receive it. ‘It’s for the safety of us out here,’ one explained, ‘and I appreciate that.’”
The authors give examples they witness of new hires from other rigs who had to learn how to ask for help, to obey safety rules, and to admit mistakes. One sample exchange: “At [company x], they don’t do this.” “You’re not at [company x]. Forget everything you know about where you came from. You’re here now.”
This emphasis on asking for advice and help led to greater administrative willingness to listen to input from lower-level employees. The informal company motto became "If you're out doing something, you're going to make mistakes. It's all part of the learning process." This lack of assigning blame extended to employees who tripped safety valves, stopping production and costing the copy big money, not being blamed. The mistakes were analyzed, but the employees were not punished, despite the financial cost to the company.
The authors: "In short, men routinely breached conventional-male norms, acknowledging their own and others' shortcomings as part of the learning process.”
Which leads to the really interesting (to me) stuff: the results of this change in the "emotional domain" of the workers.
Employees became comfortable sharing their problems at home with supervisors, as a way to help maintain group safety. One worker, first thing one morning, told his coworkers about his sick child and said: "This is what I'm dealing with at home. If you all would please keep me focused and understand if I'm a little distracted, I'd appreciate it.”
The authors: “Workers displayed raw fears in our presence, with no indication of shame.”
One inexperienced worker precipitated a shut-down because he followed the advice of his physically intimidating coworker. After error analysis "this exchange led to a larger team discussion about the need to guard against one's potential to intimidate, however unwittingly, or to be intimidated.” Production goals on the rigs “were stated in relative terms rather than absolute numbers,” which workers saw as concrete evidence of the company’s concern with safety over profit and the bottom line.
One of the oil rigs made light of the mistakes by establishing the "Millionaires Club," made up of workers whose mistake cost the company millions of dollars. "To become a member was not a source of shame, but rather a mark of being human."
One worker described "how he had become less blaming and more attentive to others' feelings" from the emphasis on learning from mistakes. "You realize you need to change when you see a look on someone's face after they made a mistake like that--and you see the hurt. Because that's something you don't want to cause."
For the workers, the definition of being a man changed. It "doesn't mean I want to kick someone's ass" or "being macho or arrogant." "I don't want to be a superhero out there. I don't want to know eveyrthing."
The money quote:
"A man is a man when he can think like a woman," which means "being sensitive, compassionate, in touch with my feelings; knowing when to laugh and when to cry." The authors add that "several interviewees corroborated this view, offering definitions of manhood that similarly emphasized humility, feelings, approachability and compassion."
In the final section the authors provide a theoretical how-to for undoing corporate gender. "By consistently putting collectivistic goals front and center, cultural practices anchor men to work goals that connect them to others. Men's sense that others' well-being is at stake in how they perform their jobs gives them a compelling reason to deviate from conventional masculinity when the work requires it."
The authors also touch on how the presence of women–there were none on the oil rig–might change things: "consistent with the finding that men 'place the highest value on their identity in the eyes of other men' male-dominated workplaces are a breeding ground for conventional masculinity." "Even in women's absence, men strive to prove their masculine credentials; hence, women's presence does not appear to be determinative."
Finally, as an example of the unusual (for oil rigs) "emotional domain" and "sharing concerns and advice about personal matters," an overheard conversation among men at lunch: "Sent home a tape of that Mozart and Chopin for Joe's baby, because it's real important for them babies to listen to music like that. Real soothing."