Harvard Business School professors often travel into the field to conduct business research, but it's a safe bet none have had the experience of Professor Robin Ely. She and coauthor Debra Meyerson of Stanford University took helicopter trips to deep-water oil platforms in order to study masculinity in the workplace.
A resulting working paper, "Unmasking Manly Men: The Organizational Reconstruction of Male Identity," not only explores how organizations influence the way men enact their gender, but also looks at how "organizational features might encourage people to resist enacting those stereotypes," says Ely.
For example, previous studies show that men in dangerous jobs, such as coal mining, often act infallible to impress their coworkers and bosses. Problem is, the infallible mindset can lead to just the opposite—more accidents—and diminish productivity.
"As organizational scholars, we were interested in organizations as social and cultural contexts that shape how men make sense of themselves—the stories they tell themselves as men about what it means to be male—and in the effect this sense-making has on how they behave at work," says Ely.
In this interview, Ely discusses the origins of the research, her experiences aboard an oil platform, and how this research can improve safety at other job sites.
Sarah Jane Gilbert: How do you define masculine identity and what led you to study this topic?
Robin Ely: We define masculine identity as the sense a man makes of himself as a man, which develops in the course of his interactions with others. A man encounters—and learns to anticipate—others' expectations of him as a man; he responds, others react, and through this back-and-forth, he comes to see and present himself in particular ways. Such interactions do not occur ex nihilo, but are shaped by culturally available ideologies about what it means to be a man. Hence, men's masculine identity (like women's feminine identity) is a profoundly social and cultural phenomenon.
As organizational scholars, we were interested in organizations as social and cultural contexts that shape how men make sense of themselves as men—the stories they tell themselves about what it means to be male—and in the effect this sense-making has on how they behave at work. Much research on gender in organizations documents how men and women differ on a variety of dimensions, from leadership style to negotiation skills to work values, but neglects the organizational features that underlie such differences. This body of research runs the risk of reifying differences, of making them seem natural. If study after study reports findings that align with stereotypes and does not address why, then these differences—in temperament, values, attitudes, and behaviors—take on a determinative quality. In a culture that readily promotes gender essentialism—the belief that sex differences are natural—stereotypes provide a default attribution for women's lack of progress in the public sphere of work, making it difficult to expose and undermine the social and cultural bases of inequality.
Workers were warm and welcoming, generous with their time, conscientious in their responses to our questions, and fun!
We were interested in generating theory about the contribution of organizations to the etiology of sex differences in behavior, cognition, and emotion at work. Specifically, we wanted to understand how organizational features, such as work practices and norms, encourage people to think, feel, and behave in a manner that is consistent with traditional sex-role stereotypes, but also how organizational features might encourage people to resist enacting those stereotypes.
From this perspective, both masculine and feminine gender identity are interesting to study, but to study men and masculinity was especially intriguing because so often the world presumes that only women have a gender. By studying men and masculinity, we were able to highlight that men too have a gender and to examine how organizations influence the way men enact their gender.
Q: Can you explain the "image of invulnerability" and its impact on a dangerous work environment?
A: The sociological literature contains a number of wonderful ethnographies—vivid descriptive accounts—of men doing dangerous work in such settings as coal mines, fire departments, and the military. Invulnerability looms large in all these descriptions.
Men went to great efforts to appear invulnerable in three realms—physical, technical, and emotional—in order to prove their merit as workers and as men. Men demonstrated their physical invulnerability by displaying bravado, including a disregard for physical safety, in the presence of physical danger. In the technical realm, they upheld an image of invulnerability by putting on a guise of being technically infallible, which meant refusing to admit to or reveal evidence of failures, mistakes, or lack of knowledge. In the emotional realm, presenting oneself as emotionally detached, unshakable, and fearless was crucial for demonstrating both masculinity and competence.
In all three realms, work norms encouraged such displays, and organizational practices rewarded them.
Research shows that in dangerous, male-dominated work settings, men's tendency to gain respect by demonstrating and defending their masculinity is costly. Efforts to appear invulnerable blocked precisely the kinds of actions that encourage safety and effectiveness. Covering up mistakes, for example, curtails learning and allows for the repetition and escalation of errors. In complex systems with high degrees of interdependence, small errors that go unrecognized can cascade into large accidents. Moreover, practices that conflate competence with toughness lead workers to ignore precautionary measures and take unnecessary risks. Thus, the costs of men's masculine striving are high, and both individuals and organizations pay the price.
Q: What made you choose offshore platforms as the organizational environment for your research?
A: We selected this setting because we knew it to be one where the work is hazardous and the workforce largely male—and, in these respects, similar to the workplaces in the ethnographic accounts summarized above—yet offshore oil platforms function safely and effectively. In the research literature, they are considered "high-reliability organizations." According to some scholars, the explanation of the difference lies in these organizations' "cognitive infrastructure": organizational practices in high-reliability organizations give rise to a distinctive way of thinking—workers direct attention at failure (rather than success) and are concerned with reliability (rather than efficiency)—leading to better outcomes.
The concept of masculinity has broad relevance across organizational settings.
We conjectured that a distinctive way of relating likely accompanies this way of thinking—men who attend to failure, for example, would relate to each other differently than would men who are focused on success—with implications for how men construct their masculine identities. This possibility raised two questions: How do men construct masculine identity in high-hazard workplaces that emphasize safety and effectiveness, and what organizational features support and sustain these efforts?
To address these questions, we studied offshore oil platforms, a quintessentially masculine workplace—dirty, dangerous, and male-dominated—because these settings have undergone radical operational and cultural changes designed to increase safety and effectiveness.
In the particular company we studied, these changes resulted in a decline in the company's accident rate by 84 percent; in the same period, the company's level of productivity (number of barrels), efficiency (cost per barrel), and reliability (production "up" time) came to exceed the industry's previous benchmark. Two of the company's newer platforms had been designed from the start to reflect the new priorities. As top performers on each of these indices of safety and performance, they were exemplars of the company's efforts to create a new kind of offshore operating environment.
Our discussions with senior managers led us to believe that organizational features of this operating environment differed from those of traditional masculine workplaces, making their platforms an ideal site for investigating alternative processes of masculine identity-construction at work.
Q: Tell us about your experience on the oil platforms. What was it like to visit and interview the men in this setting?
A: It was the best field research experience I have ever had. Workers were warm and welcoming, generous with their time, conscientious in their responses to our questions, and fun! We traveled to the platforms by helicopter (the platforms are located in the Gulf of Mexico over 100 miles off the coast) alongside employees making "hitch" changes (a hitch is the two-week stint each worker does offshore, followed by two weeks off-duty). Each facility contains space for outdoor work, production facilities, power generation, drilling operations, control rooms, living quarters, offices, library, gym, recreation area, and cafeteria. While on site we wore regulation steel-toed boots, hard hat, goggles, and ear plugs. During each visit, we ate meals and shared living quarters with employees. The food was abundant and pretty good; quarters were dorm-like, each room containing 2 to 4 bunk beds, and very clean. People work long and hard—the standard workday is divided into two 12-hour shifts (the day and night shift), and everyone is on call 24 hours a day.
During site visits, we were able to observe most aspects of their work and to interview, both informally and formally, many of the workers. One member of our team, Laura Wernick, even joined them. She trained for two days at their training site and then worked a two-week hitch as a deck operator on each platform.
Our first visit offshore ended just as the September 11, 2001 catastrophe struck, forcing an unplanned evacuation by boat of all but a skeleton crew. The evacuation took place, four people at a time clinging to a "basket," a large donut shaped contraption with nets through which we laced our arms, as a crane lowered us 400 feet to the boat's deck. The lengthy (eight-hour) trip and the extraordinary circumstances led four of the men with whom we traveled to reflect on their jobs and their lives with exceptional openness.
Q: Could you describe the results of the study?
A: Our study demonstrated how organizational features designed to enhance safety and effectiveness unintentionally released men from societal imperatives for manly behavior. Rather than seeking to prove how tough, proficient, and cool-headed they were, as was typical of men in other dangerous workplaces, platform workers purposefully made themselves vulnerable in order to perform their jobs more safely and effectively: They readily acknowledged their physical limitations, publicly admitted their mistakes so they could learn from them, and openly attended to their own and others' feelings.
We describe these behaviors as "purposeful" because they involve making oneself vulnerable in order to achieve work-related goals. Men's mutual expressions of purposeful vulnerability produced deeper, more intimate coworker relationships in which they could express a broader repertoire of personal qualities—qualities that were responsive to the dictates of their work rather than to the dictates of conventional masculinity. Organizational features, such as policies, practices, and norms, were key to the disruption of traditional masculinity by creating conditions that shifted men's energies away from the goal of proving their masculinity and instead supporting their pursuit of goals larger than themselves: enhancing safety and effectiveness.
Dangerous workplaces provide a window on how processes associated with masculinity construction unfold in mainstream organizations.
We identified three organizational conditions as enabling men to make this shift. The first is what we call a connective purpose, which motivates the shift in goal orientation away from proving masculinity. People need a compelling reason to place their self-image at risk, and being invested in a meaningful purpose that requires taking such risks may provide one. Research shows that people regard as meaningful purposes that connect them to others, such those that advance broad social ideals, enhance relationships, or make contributions to others' well being. When people perceive that efforts to validate their self-image may contradict or compromise such purposes, they are motivated to abandon self-image concerns while doing their jobs.
The second organizational condition—psychological safety—refers to team members' shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, in other words, that members' well-intentioned actions will not lead to rejection or punishment by other team members. Research shows that members of teams that are psychologically safe are more willing to make themselves vulnerable in team interactions by, for example, admitting mistakes or seeking help. Thus, platform conditions that made the work context psychologically safe likely contributed to men's willingness to abandon self-image concerns in service of their work.
The third organizational condition is the decoupling of masculinity and competence. Whereas most dangerous workplaces conflate stereotypical masculine traits (being brave, tough, and strong, for example) and competence, displays of masculinity held little currency on the platforms. Platform workers instead valued skills and behaviors that better enabled coworkers to contribute safely and effectively to the work at hand, such as "caring about fellow workers," being "mission-driven," a "good listener," and "thoughtful."
By redefining the meaning of masculinity and supporting a generative rather than defensive process of masculine identity construction, these platforms may have avoided costs other dangerous workplaces pay for men's masculinity strivings. Our findings point to the mutability of masculine identity and suggest how organizations can disrupt its negative elements by changing norms and work practices to the benefit of individual workers and the organization as a whole.
Q: Do you think you'd have found similar results in a more common, less dangerous workplace such as the corporate office?
A: Platform workers, who live and work together for weeks at a time in a confined space, are captive to their work environments in ways that most workers are not. Hence, it is conceivable that the institutionalization of work practices and norms we observed would be difficult to replicate in other settings.
Nevertheless, despite these organizations' unique characteristics, the concept of masculinity has broad relevance across organizational settings. We focused on masculine identity-constructions in dangerous workplaces because few settings evoke more vividly the dominant cultural image of the ideal man—autonomous, brave, and strong—but masculinity is also pursued in other work settings.
Research has documented how mainstream organizations conflate stereotypical masculine traits with effective performance in white-collar jobs, such as manager, scientist, and lawyer: Success in these jobs is often measured by how well one fits the desired masculine image. Hence, these jobs, too, are proving grounds for masculinity. By the same token, mainstream organizations should be able to disrupt such processes by instituting policies, practices, and norms that anchor people in meaningful work, encourage psychological safety, and decouple masculine traits from definitions of competence. In short, dangerous workplaces provide a window on how processes associated with masculinity construction unfold in mainstream organizations, and highly effective dangerous workplaces provide a window on how they can change.
More broadly, we argue that problems associated with masculinity lie not in masculine attributes per se—many tasks require aggressiveness, strength, or emotional detachment—but rather, in men's efforts to prove themselves on these dimensions, whether in the dirty, dangerous setting of an off-shore oil platform or in the posh, protected surroundings of the executive suite. When enacted in service of the work rather than in defense of a self-image, masculine attributes can be a valuable resource.
Q: What can women learn from your study and apply to their roles on the workplace?
A: Our findings have at least two implications for women. First, the notion of proving and defending one's manhood may have some parallels for women. Women may be invested in sustaining a cultural ideal of femininity, especially in traditionally female jobs. To the extent that such jobs conflate feminine traits with definitions of competence, they can become a proving ground for women, with costs similar to those identified for men. A woman social worker, for example, invested in proving her emotional availability (a socially-approved "feminine" trait sometimes required on the job) may foster dysfunctional dependencies in her clients. Although particular women's investment in the dominant cultural ideals of femininity may vary by race and class, subcultural ideals may hold similar sway but simply offer a different set of standards ….
The second implication of our research for women concerns debates about the relative merits of "masculine" versus "feminine" traits. Leadership scholars, for example, have begun to question heroic models of leadership, favoring a more relational approach often associated with femininity. Some gender scholars, for their part, have touted women leaders as more effective than men because of their unique relational abilities and have lamented organizations' under-appreciation of these abilities. Our findings suggest that such debates may focus on the wrong question because how people enact their gender identities—defensively versus generatively—may be more consequential than what traits they display.
Importantly, the reconstruction of masculine identity on the platforms was not simply a case of men replacing the content of one masculine identity with the content of another and then setting out to prove the new image—revealing mistakes strategically, for example, or competing in displays of sensitivity. It also involved a transformation of the process of identity construction from one anchored in efforts to prove something about oneself to one anchored in the real demands of their work. We conclude that questions about which traits are better—masculine or feminine—become moot when identity construction processes are no longer defensive.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We are currently designing a follow-on project in which we will administer a survey to employees on fourteen platforms, mostly offshore, but some onshore, to examine whether the relationships we identified in our case studies hold up across different teams and platforms.
We are also planning to conduct some experimental studies to further examine the conditions that foster changes in masculine identity construction processes.
Finally, we are conducting a parallel study of women's feminine gender identity in a predominantly female workplace to explore similarities and differences in the role organizations play in how women construct their gender identity.