Monday, November 27, 2006

boys will be boys

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.

Robin Ely, associate professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, in « Manly Men, Oil Platforms, and Breaking Stereotypes » in Working Knowledge

I'm not commenting. I'm just quoting. Isn't ethnography fascinating?


Mikkel said...

Thank youse, that's very helpful. From now on you womens can be in charge of all the dangerous work, and us guys will do all the nagging and back seat driving.

suttonhoo said...

I'm no ethnographer, but I'm concerned that that may not be feasible -- at least from the nagging side. To nag effectively, one has to be invested in the outcome -- and how much do men *really* care about whether or not the garbage makes it to the curb?

ok -- well -- some men do.

Mikkel said...

It says tuesday on the garbage can - does that mean I have to put it out monday night?

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