How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo

Psychologists investigating two (non-BP) deep-water, offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico have applauded the working-practices they observed, claiming they allowed the predominantly male workforce to ‘undo’ gender – that is, to stop pursuing a counter-productive, masculine ideal.

Setting the scene in their new paper, Robin Ely and Debra Meyerson argue that dangerous work-places have traditionally encouraged male staff to ‘do gender’ by demonstrating physical prowess, taking risks, concealing technical incompetence and coming across as fearless and unflappable. Such behaviours detrimentally affect staff training, lead to accidents and poor decision making, human rights violations, and the marginalisation of female colleagues.  Oil rigs would normally be the classic example of such a work culture, but during several visits to two Gulf of Mexico rigs, the researchers and their colleagues found that a strong corporate focus on safety had led the staff to acknowledge their physical limitations, to be open about their skill shortcomings and freely express their feelings.

Ely and Meyerson highlight three specific work-place factors that they say led the workers to ‘undo gender’: having collectivist goals (especially putting safety first); defining competence according to task requirements rather than masculine ideals; and having a learning orientation towards work. Regarding the last factor, it was widely accepted on the rigs that people make mistakes and that the important thing is to learn from them. One rig had even established a ‘Millionaire Club’ to ‘honour’ workers whose mistakes had cost the company a million dollars (an ironic nod to the IBM sales club that recognised successful salespeople). ‘To become a member was not a source of shame,’ the researchers explained, ‘but rather, a mark of being human.’

Ely and Meyerson think their research has implications beyond dangerous workplaces, including for ‘white-collar jobs, such as manager, scientist and lawyer,’ which they said can all serve as proving grounds for masculinity. ‘In short,’ they concluded, ‘dangerous workplaces provide a window on how processes associated with masculinity unfold in organisations, and highly effective dangerous workplaces provide a window on how these processes could be different. Indeed, if men can “undo gender” on offshore oil platforms – arguably one of the most macho work environments in the modern world – then they should be able to undo it anywhere.’

ResearchBlogging.orgEly, R., and Meyerson, D. (2010). An organizational approach to undoing gender: The unlikely case of offshore oil platforms. Research in Organizational Behavior, 30, 3-34 DOI: 10.1016/j.riob.2010.09.002