I recently read an article that I’m recommending to all of my colleagues and will adopt for my graduate seminar next year. It’s Robin Ely and Debra E. Meyerson’s “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms.” It is methodologically exciting—they performed a case study of two offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico (before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) and analyzed case data of published work on men doing “dangerous” work (e.g., miners, wild land firefighters, military service). It is also theoretically provocative—they theorize that organizations can “disrupt conventional masculinity’s masculine elements” (page 5). Organizations, they conclude, have the capacity to change deeply rooted work cultures; namely, organizations can both “do” and “undo” gender at work. In their case, an organization initiative on one of the oil rigs designed to increase safety, had the unexpected effect of allowing men to “de-masculinize” their behaviors—to openly admit and share responsibility for mistakes, to work for the collective, to express their feelings, and reduce the typical need to express “toughness” common among men doing dangerous work. They actually found that the new organizational initiative reduced men’s need to compete or otherwise affirm their masculine credentials.
If an organizational policy change can unintentionally shift the very culture of an intensely masculine setting, can similar things happen in other typically (although not necessarily dangerous) masculine settings? I’m thinking here of academic STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines whose cultures value masculine ideals (long hours, uninterrupted careers, etc.). Can we “undo” gender in academic STEM disciplines? What would hard science look like if we “undid” its masculine identity? Would more women join, remain in, and advance to the top leadership positions in academic STEM disciplines? Ely and Meyerson suggest three components of organizational cultures capable of reorienting workers away from masculine behaviors: (1) the development of collective goals, (2) aligning definitions of competence with job-related tasks (rather than images of the ideal worker), and (3) emphasis on a learning orientation toward work. It seems that the second organizational cultural shift—de-emphasizing masculine ideals in the definition of task competence—might be one way STEM fields can shift their culture.
I see many applications of Ely and Meyerson’s theory and all OOW members ought to find merit in their empirical support for the long standing argument that organizations create culture and shape behavior.