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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

6 thoughts on “How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo”

  1. Presumably this has been studied in other workforces and the reverse has been found true, that men become more macho amongst solely male companions? I say presumably because it's a result I'd be surprised by so it'd be odd for this study to be so apparently in contradiction to expectations (machismo functions mainly as a way to attract females and, without females, would seem pointless).

    What other function does machismo serve other than to make one's heterosexuality apparent? Presumably, if it occurs at in an increased degree in most male-only workforces, it must serve some other function, but I cannot think what that would be.

    In areas like policing and military it could bolster morale, I suppose, by making the constant threat to the personnel's life from opposed groups seem less serious than it is, by rebuffing negative thoughts ('I might die') with behaviour that is strongly opposed (taking excessive risks), but outside of this very limited field I can't think of much reason why machismo would thrive in gender restricted environments.

  2. It's not so much whether machismo serves a function, but rather whether people can resist the demands of genetic mandates to compete with others in situations where competition is irrelevant or even detrimental. Consider the behavior of people in the typical office, where you get ahead by finding ways to blame your competition, or your colleagues, for your mistakes. Some managers even encourage this, thinking that competition produces the best results. However, placing the highest value on “winning” can lead to deception, blaming, coverups and humiliation, none of which benefit the company or the workers. I think this study demonstrates the generally unacknowledged benefit of organizationally accepting of human fallibility and its potential consequences. With that fact out in the open, you enable workers to alert management about problems before they become disastrous, because they know they will not be punished. Great study!

  3. You're correct, its findings definitely are so, but my query was that gender identities and their signifiers (men overplaying their invulnerability, women underplaying theirs etc) presumably arise most pressingly from environments where one's gender identity is most strongly tested. I was pondering why an all male environment would put one's masculinity to the test, would it be due to more intense comparative masculinity to the other men? If so that too seems a little odd, because why, with no mates present, should one care how one's masculinity is presented?

    Perhaps there is more to machismo than mating and I'm overlooking something. The obvious other quality it would confer is perceived invulnerability and hence it would make attacks by other males less likely to occur, but this isn't a very satisfactory answer for humans, since we're far more collectivistic than most mammals and physical reinforcing of hierarchy occurs too infrequently for this to be an evolutionary imperative.

  4. I would speculate that, because we are relatively close to our evolutionary roots, we have not yet learned how to deliberately separate habitual behavior related to reproductive success from behavior needed for success in more abstract and cultural situations. In many ways, most of us have a small handful of behavioral tools and we use them most of the time, and gender roles typically exploit those tools. Combine that with the pressure to succeed in a stressful environment, and it's not surprising that we fall back on what we “know” best. You can see the same phenomenon with fight or flight. Does it make sense that we get angry and flushed and our hearts race when the boss criticizes us? Does it make sense that we get pale and anxious and restless when we watch a scary movie? These are not physically threatening events and yet we respond physically. That's what bodies do.

    I think the focus on machismo is not exclusionary in this study. It just happens to be that this study focused on this kind of automatic behavior in an all-male environment. You could probably do the same with a traditionally all-female environment, like perhaps an old-style secretarial pool or a nursing home (although, of course, those jobs are not as gender-specific as they used to be). It would not surprise me at all to find that putting into place the same kind of policies (embracing fallibility, honoring the reporting of mistakes, accepting physical liabilities, etc) would greatly reduce some of the negative aspects of female interactions and improve the climate in those situations as well.

    Bottom line–people prefer to work in places where they have the freedom and support to do a better job by cooperating and communicating freely, where they are not forced into a particular set of behaviors by top-down or peer pressure, where they don't feel like peons working for impersonal managers who prefer to take credit and assign blame, where management acknowledges their human fallibility, where success is determined by how well the job is done and not by who knows how to brown-nose best, etc, etc.

  5. Good reply, I reckon you're probably right. I know that other members of the Hominini tribe show very similar responses to stressful environments (there's one particularly amusing study on chimpanzees in an enclosed space where they all refuse to make eye contact with one another due to unfamiliarity, much like humans on a train), but I wonder how far back along the evolutionary tree these kind of features remain.

    I'm sure the same is true of women as was found of men in the study, but gender isn't really my area of interest.

  6. We think of the male (brain) function as 1 – hunting to bring home “meat.” Male behavior makes a lot of sense with that biological (survival/reproductive success).

    The priority of a hunting group is dominance – who gets the most “meat” for their family. Verbal skills and verbal negotiations waste energy. Physical/non-verbal negotiations are economical since they involve the same capabilities need to hunt, track and kill meat.

    Obviously, these capabilities were highly successful millions of years ago in Africa. Now, much less so.

    Of course, the female/”gather” brain preferences are also less adaptive than in Africa, e.g., shopping, the “mommy brain,” social media.

    What is adaptive, which our brains are pretty good at, is group processing of complex experience. However, that takes moderating high hormone drivers in all parties.

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