Ecofeminism is a powerful means to accomplish the goal of a more peaceful, prosperous, and socially just world. Unsurprisingly, entrenched blocks to its implementation exist within the modern social order due to its excesses of hierarchical capitalism and masculinism. Thus one of the most methodologically exciting works of this subsection is an analysis of how corporations and similar organizations can and do assist in redefining rather than re-inscribing social gender roles — in specific, masculinity. Anthropologists and business professors Robin J. Ely (of Harvard) & Debra E. Meyerson (of Stanford) have focused their research upon productive strategies of change specifically aimed at removing inequities regarding gender and race relations within organizations. The case study results reported in their astounding 2010 article, "An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms" are, I believe, of critical social importance deserving far greater exposure and recognition.

As Ely and Meyerson explain, the dominant form of manliness (often referred to as "hegemonic masculinity") for a particular cultural time and setting invariably confers status, and is required in order to legitimately accrue power, claim privilege, elicit deference, and resist exploitation. However, it requires near-constant social buttressing. Thus while "hegemonic masculinity is not normal in a statistical sense, … it is profoundly normative … a man's efforts to prove his manliness — to himself and to others — are as central to enacting a masculine identity as the particular traits he displays" (6). This ensures masculinity is of immense value to men, even when they do not agree with its particulars due to the constant tension and uncertainty regarding its performance. As the article explains, "We equate manhood with being successful, capable, reliable, in control. The very definitions of manhood we have developed in our culture maintain the power that some men have over other men" (Kimmel 1994, 125; quoted in Ely & Meyerson, 5).

Further, studies have shown that current cultural practices within traditionally masculine gendered occupations — such as the construction and coal mining industry, firefighting and police departments, and the military — tend towards heavily and deliberately pressuring participants into conventional gender norms through the conflation of competence with masculinity. As noted, this hyper-individualizing social process is not a stable state of being, but rather exists in an endless state of tension which requires constant and forceful performative demonstrations of the "self as emotionally detached, unflappable, and fearless" (7).

As the authors note, within these fields these conforming presentations are both ubiquitous and demanded: idealization of strength through physical prowess, demonstration of bravado in the presence of danger, assumption of technically infallibility through never admitting mistakes (or worse, through covering up the mistakes of co-workers), and projection of an image of sexual potency. However, the costly result of such performances is not just financial losses due to equipment damage and worker injury; but is also seen in the undermining of collectivistic goals, promotion of a culture of blame, and required gender performance through the conflation of definitions of competence with supposedly masculine traits (27). More damagingly, this leads to a sort of constant battle of hyper-masculinity in which men are effectively forced to make poor quality decisions, embrace excessive risk-taking, and marginalize and violate the civil and human rights of women and less "manly" men — resulting in health-damaging emotional and relational alienation (4, 5).

It was understandably quite startling, therefore, to the authors to effectively discover "an organizational initiative designed to enhance safety and effectiveness [which] created a culture that unintentionally released men from societal imperatives for 'manly' behavior" (3). Equally dramatic were its financial results: "The corporate-wide changes resulted in an 84% decline in the company's accident rate; 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" (9; italics mine). Further, as the authors note, "Importantly, these men did not repudiate traditionally masculine traits … but they did not seem focused on proving them. … these men did not abdicate power, but they expressed it without bravado" (15; italics in original). The amazing potential revealed by such studies was noted as well:

If men's performance of conventional masculinity preserves male dominance … then understanding the organizational conditions that lead men to abandon such scripts is an important contribution to theory about how organizations can reconstruct the gender system…. 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. (28)

Clearly, therefore, undoing hegemonic masculinity has the potential for immense emotional, physical, and financial benefit to its participants, both individual and organizational. Ely & Meyerson's question logically then becomes: "how does an organization equip men to 'undo' gender — to take up work roles without regard for the culture's normative conceptions of men … — and, in the process, mitigate masculinity's negative effects?" (5).

The authors note there are "organizations designed to avoid catastrophes despite operating in dangerous, technologically complex environments" which are referred to as "high-reliability organizations," or HROs (5). For obvious safety reasons, within these HROs there is an emphasis on three components of organizational culture: "the primacy of collectivistic goals, alignment between definitions of competence and bona fide task requirements, and a learning orientation toward work" (19). Strikingly, an unexpected byproduct of this organizational re-definition of competence is the destabilization of conventional masculine image goals of invulnerability, prompting a willingness in the participants to "deviate from conventional enactments of masculinity" (14), and encouraging interpersonal admissions of vulnerability in service to work goals.

Just as fascinating is the strong lack of participant challenge to these new and less painful standards of masculinity (13) — it would appear the standard cultural definitions of masculinity are as unwelcome to men as they are to most women and children. Most personally moving is the reaction of the oil workers who are the study participants, when asked for their definition of manliness: "'a man is a man when he can think like a woman … being sensitive, compassionate, in touch with my feelings; knowing when to laugh and when to cry.' Several interviewees corroborated this view" (26). As the authors later note: "These responses are consistent with research showing that having a learning orientation diminishes reliance on stereotypes" (26).

In a nutshell: "organizations equip men to undo gender by giving them the motivation, a model, and a margin of safety to deviate from conventional masculine scripts" (27). It was marvelous to read the authors' provocative and empirical results: that the behavioral changes towards the organizational goals "represented a fundamental difference in orientation toward work, the self, and others … people regard these goals as more meaningful than image goals because they satisfy a basic human need for relatedness and thus are inherently more rewarding to pursue" (15). Clearly organizations have tremendous potential to assist in changing hegemonic masculinity: from a socially and individually damaging, constant proving of invulnerability — to a more learning-based, collectivist, and goal-oriented perspective, which carries with it associated gains in physical, financial, and emotional health for both individuals and the organizations themselves.

Bibliography

Ely, Robin J. & Debra E. Meyerson. "An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms." Research in Organizational Behavior 30 (2010): 3-34.

Kimmel, M. S. "Masculinity and Homophobia: Fear, Shame & Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity." In Theorizing Masculinities, edited by H. Brod & M. Kaufman, 119-141. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994.

 

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