October 2013


The tough guy problem

By Dean Laplonge

A crew of men show me the large hose they use to wash down machinery and clean the site. It’s long. It’s heavy. They insist that the weight of this hose is why women cannot do their jobs. They pass the hose from man to man, all determined to show me the strength they possess. They ask me if I want to hold it too. I decline.

Freudian interpretations aside, we can see how these men use this piece of machinery to lay claim to real masculinity. But in the process, they also put themselves at risk. All the men tell me they have suffered injuries to their shoulders while using this hose for extended periods of time. Presumably any woman who might get her hands on this hose would be at a similar risk of injury – that is, if she accepted the challenge to perform the masculine feat necessary to fit in here.

I ask them why they don’t just talk to the safety department to see if somebody can design something less heavy and less likely to cause injury. They look at me as if I’m a traitor – a man who wants to deny them the very thing they rely on to prove their masculinity and to prove their superiority over women.

Numerous studies look at the relationship between gender and safety in a range of disciplines, and these studies consider risk-taking in many different contexts. The research points to a clear link between gender and safety, yet in resource industries these subjects continue to be kept well apart.

It is simple to claim that men are more prone to taking risks than women. Indeed, many studies argue that men do, in fact, take more risks than women. But this does not mean that men are naturally unsafe. Instead, males are taught from very early on in life that they need to be tough. They later engage in risk-taking behaviour in order to show they are strong, capable and in control. And when men do take risks with their bodies and survive unharmed, the reward is often approval.

There is no real masculinity; there are only ever performances and constructions of gender. This is why, when we first start to think about gender and safety, we must avoid stereotyping. Women are not less inclined to engage in risk-taking behaviour because they are naturally softer, gentler and more nurturing. Their gender identity often demands far less toughness to be shown. But when women work and live in highly masculinized cultures, they too can adopt risky behaviour because they also see the rewards of successful displays of strength.

When we investigate the possible impacts of gender on safety in our workplaces, we should not target men specifically. We should ask: How do our organizations and our workspaces encourage both men and women to engage in practices that increase their willingness to take risks? In masculine workplaces, practices of masculinity that promote risk-taking as a way of showing strength also need to be investigated.

This is extremely new and challenging work for resource companies. As such, the response is often to ignore it. Safety professionals working in mining, oil and gas, or construction are not required to learn about the impacts of gender on safety. We are failing to respond to the very real impacts of the gender culture on workers’ safety and well-being and this is putting people at risk.

For those who want to explore the relationship between gender and safety seriously, they should first ensure that workplace safety professionals are taught about gender. This should start with education about gender as a broad concept and then later link gender and safety, as described in the available literature. Safety professionals need to learn how to apply this knowledge to how gender relates to safety in their specific workplaces.

Safety management systems and safety policies and procedures should also be reviewed to identify how these may have been influenced by assumptions about gender and thus further encourage risk-taking practices at work. This is referred to as “gender-mainstreaming” – a review process that helps us identify the impacts of gender on what we have assumed to be gender-less systems.

Safety communication practices and campaigns need to be evaluated as well because language and communication are widely recognized to be influenced by gender.

Once all this education and review groundwork has been completed within the safety department, more focused work can take place alongside employees to help drive wider workplace discussions and improve understanding about how gender impacts the way we work. Success in the wider workplace is dependent on quality gender education for safety professionals and senior personnel. And this is often sensitive and difficult work, as it takes employees – particularly those who have been used to working in highly masculinized industries – way outside their comfort zones.

Dean Laplonge, PhD, is a leading researcher and consultant in the field of gender, safety and communications. He is the director of Factive, a cultural research consultancy that works with resource companies in Canada and Australia to address cultural issues in the industry. His book, So, you think you’re tough: getting serious about gender in mining, is due out later this year.

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