Regendering corporations

Paul Raven @ 30-03-2011

Here’s a blog-post transcription of a recent “tweet-lecture” by Jess Nevins about a paper titled “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms”, which looks at the dangers of performative maleness (and ways of countering such) in “High Risk Organisations”such as oil drilling rigs. In short, the oil companies wanted to reduce the number of worker injuries, and did so by switching the cultural attitudes that ruled the workplace from rugged individualist machismo to a more cautious collectivism… which didn’t just change the company culture and safety record, but the emotional attitudes of the workers themselves:

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.”

[…]

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.”

Imagine, just for a moment what a country run by a government that had been “regendered”- not by swapping out all the men for women, but by redefining its goals – might look like.

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.”

(Emphasis mine.)

I dare say there’ll be more than a few guys reading this and thinking it’s some liberal feminist plot to emasculate men. If you’re one of them, I invite you to read it again; the point isn’t that men need to act like women, it’s that there are clear benefits to everyone – at both the personal and organisational levels – when men act less like macho dicks.

And if that’s still sticking in your craw and making you want to shout at someone, then I think you’ve just provided your own confirmatory data-point.