Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Changing corporate gender: a case study.

The following is a prose version of a Twitter lecture I did yesterday over on my Twitter feed.

It was based on a fascinating article: Robin J. Ely’s and Debra E. Meyerson’s “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms,” which appeared in Research in Organizational Behavior v30 (2010).

The authors begin by examining the ways in which gender has become, for men, a dynamic performance rather than a static state of being. The authors compare how men define masculinity in traditionally male occupations, especially those occupations which entail physical risk: policemen, fire fighters, oil rig workers, soldiers, etc.

The traditional research has shown that men in these occupations try to achieve a kind of hyper-masculinity, but this comes with a cost: excessive risk-taking, poor decision-making, interference in training and recruitment, marginalizing women workers, violating the civil and human rights of workers, and alienating “men from their health, emotions, and relationships with others.”

However, the authors of this paper looked at “high-reliability organizations” (HROs), which are “organizations designed to avoid catastrophes despite operating in dangerous, technologically complex environments.” Studies have shown that male workers at HROs “deviate from conventional masculine norms. In place of toughness, these men avoid taking unnecessary risks, seek help, and inquire after failures.”

The authors of this paper, seeing the basic contradiction, did on-site examinations of two offshore oil rigs, which are HROs.

The authors recap typical male behavior in dangerous workplaces (not HROs): demonstrations of physical prowess, the idealization of strength, bravado in the presence of danger, the projection of the image of sexual potency, assuming the guise of being technically infallible (never admitting mistakes), covering up the mistakes of co-workers, and the “presentation of self as emotionally detached, unflappable, and fearless.”

The two oil rigs visited were in the Gulf of Mexico. As of the mid-1990s, the companies that owned them had a distressingly high rate of worker injury. So the companies built new rigs and went out of their way to do daily business differently, as a way to reduce worker injuries. That production, efficiency, and reliability increased as a result of this change was anticipated, but was not the main reason that the companies changed their ways of doing business.

Quotes from rig workers: it used to be that the “guy that was in charge was the one who could...out-intimidate the others...intimidation was the name of the game.” “They decided who the driller was by fighting. If the job came open, the one that was left standing was the driller.” But after the change in doing business: “we had to be taught how to be more lovey-dovey and more friendly with each other and to get in touch with the more tender side of each toher type of thing. And all of us just laughed at first. It was like, man, this is never going to work, you know? But now you can really tell the difference. Even though we kid around and joke around with each other, there's no malice in it. We are...kinder, gentler.”

The authors pointed out that: “importantly, these men did not repudiate traditionally masculine traits but they did not seem focused on proving them.” [italics in the original].

“Everyone–workers, managers, contractors–attributed this break from the past to the company-wide initiative to make safety its highest priority: ‘macho’ behavior was unsafe and therefore simply unacceptable.”

The authors point out that the ethos of individualism, which in the case of oil rigs is a kind of machismo taken to extremes) has been replaced by collectivism. “These men indicated that they were as committed to giving protection as they were grateful to receive it. ‘It’s for the safety of us out here,’ one explained, ‘and I appreciate that.’”

The authors give examples they witness of new hires from other rigs who had to learn how to ask for help, to obey safety rules, and to admit mistakes. One sample exchange: “At [company x], they don’t do this.” “You’re not at [company x]. Forget everything you know about where you came from. You’re here now.”

This emphasis on asking for advice and help led to greater administrative willingness to listen to input from lower-level employees. The informal company motto became "If you're out doing something, you're going to make mistakes. It's all part of the learning process." This lack of assigning blame extended to employees who tripped safety valves, stopping production and costing the copy big money, not being blamed. The mistakes were analyzed, but the employees were not punished, despite the financial cost to the company.

The authors: "In short, men routinely breached conventional-male norms, acknowledging their own and others' shortcomings as part of the learning process.”

Which leads to the really interesting (to me) stuff: the results of this change in the "emotional domain" of the workers.

Employees became comfortable sharing their problems at home with supervisors, as a way to help maintain group safety. One worker, first thing one morning, told his coworkers about his sick child and said: "This is what I'm dealing with at home. If you all would please keep me focused and understand if I'm a little distracted, I'd appreciate it.”

The authors: “Workers displayed raw fears in our presence, with no indication of shame.”

One inexperienced worker precipitated a shut-down because he followed the advice of his physically intimidating coworker. After error analysis "this exchange led to a larger team discussion about the need to guard against one's potential to intimidate, however unwittingly, or to be intimidated.” Production goals on the rigs “were stated in relative terms rather than absolute numbers,” which workers saw as concrete evidence of the company’s concern with safety over profit and the bottom line.
One of the oil rigs made light of the mistakes by establishing the "Millionaires Club," made up of workers whose mistake cost the company millions of dollars. "To become a member was not a source of shame, but rather a mark of being human."

One worker described "how he had become less blaming and more attentive to others' feelings" from the emphasis on learning from mistakes. "You realize you need to change when you see a look on someone's face after they made a mistake like that--and you see the hurt. Because that's something you don't want to cause."

For the workers, the definition of being a man changed. It "doesn't mean I want to kick someone's ass" or "being macho or arrogant." "I don't want to be a superhero out there. I don't want to know eveyrthing."

The money quote:

"A man is a man when he can think like a woman," which means "being sensitive, compassionate, in touch with my feelings; knowing when to laugh and when to cry." The authors add that "several interviewees corroborated this view, offering definitions of manhood that similarly emphasized humility, feelings, approachability and compassion."

In the final section the authors provide a theoretical how-to for undoing corporate gender. "By consistently putting collectivistic goals front and center, cultural practices anchor men to work goals that connect them to others. Men's sense that others' well-being is at stake in how they perform their jobs gives them a compelling reason to deviate from conventional masculinity when the work requires it."

The authors also touch on how the presence of women–there were none on the oil rig–might change things: "consistent with the finding that men 'place the highest value on their identity in the eyes of other men' male-dominated workplaces are a breeding ground for conventional masculinity." "Even in women's absence, men strive to prove their masculine credentials; hence, women's presence does not appear to be determinative."

Finally, as an example of the unusual (for oil rigs) "emotional domain" and "sharing concerns and advice about personal matters," an overheard conversation among men at lunch: "Sent home a tape of that Mozart and Chopin for Joe's baby, because it's real important for them babies to listen to music like that. Real soothing."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


The new issue of FLURB, Rudy Rucker's "Webzine of Astonishing Tales," includes a new story by me, "Medusa." Guest edited by Eileen Gunn, the issue also includes work by three amazing Mexican authors, Pepe Rojo, Alberto Chimal, and Bernardo Fernandez (in both English and Spanish), as well as an impressive roster of Canadians, Brits, and Americans: Doug Lain, io9's Charlie Jane Anders, Minister Faust, Leslie What, Kek-W, Robert Guffey, Michael Swanwick, and Rudy Rucker himself. FLURB is meant to provide a home for stories that are a little too "astonishing" for the mainstream magazins, and I am delighted to be included in such exciting and impressive company.

Check it out!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Official State Firearm, but not of Texas. Yet.

The BBC online informs us that Utah has designated a state firearm to join the roster of state fossil, fruit, bird and so forth. The firearm in question is the Browning M1911 pistol. I’m actually not dead set against this. My Utah stepmother was a direct and proud descendant of John M. Browning, the rifle inventor. Browning firearms really do hold an exceptional place in Utah history.

Unfortunately, the modern pro-firearms movement seems to have its taproot in insecure masculinity. Consider the effect on generations of fragile, potentially violent, Southern male ego of having lost the Civil War. Add the skeleton-in-the-closet fear of slave rebellion or Indian uprising. No wonder gun nuttery flourishes across the US even though it’s a deplorable fallacy (or phallacy) that more guns make a society more safe. Now that Utah has upped and designated a state handgun, can Texas be far behind?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Yo, Hannibal

For those of obsessed with the strange overlaps between banal popular culture and contemporary geopolitical insanity (see, eg, "The Noriega Playlist") One of the most important revelations of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the Iraqi obsession with...Lionel Ritchie. There was a great report about this from Nightline's John Berman in 2006:

I have been to Iraq nine times since the American invasion three years ago, for a total of about 10 solid months. (My wife is counting.) During that time, I have seen bombs and blood, I have seen rebuilding and restructuring, and I have seen death and democracy. So what have I heard? That's easy: Lionel Richie.

Grown Iraqi men get misty-eyed by the mere mention of his name. "I love Lionel Richie," they say. Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song.

So I was very pleased to come cross this hilarious and genius Charlie Brooker rant about the Qaddafi variation of this phenomenon, at The Guardian:

Another famous star who reportedly performed for the Gaddafis is notorious pussy 50 Cent, the crybaby pant-shitting wuss whom I could definitely have in a fight. (Did you know his real name is Fifi Millicent? Don't tell him I told you, because he's terribly sensitive about it, and weeps huge cowardly tears out of his gutless baby eyes whenever it's mentioned. Also, he was born a girl.)

Fifi was paid an undisclosed sum to sing and dance like a fey little puppet in front of Mutassim Gaddafi at the 2005 Venice film festival. But while the other stars have been embarrassed by their (possibly unintentional) connection to a despotic regime, Fifi seems to have used his as the inspiration for a startlingly violent video game called 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2009.

The game opens with Fifi Millicent performing a gig in an unnamed war-torn Middle Eastern country, in exchange for a $10m fee. When the mysterious promoter shows signs of not coughing up the money, Fifi and chums storm backstage, call him a "motherfucker" and shove a shotgun in his face. Terrified, he hands them a priceless Damien Hirst-style diamond-encrusted skull. Fiddy and co then bravely head for the airport in their armoured Hummers, only to be ambushed by armed insurgents. During the gunfire and confusion, a sexy woman appears from nowhere and steals the precious skull. "Bitch took my skull," whines Fifi, before embarking on an awesome odyssey of violence across the troubled Arabic nation, shooting and murdering anyone who gets in his way.

Who'd have thought someone like 50 Cent could lend his name to something so crass and stupid? It's almost as if he's an idiot. Still, perhaps openly embracing the despotic crossover in a video game is the way forward. How long before we see a game called Gaddafi Hero, in which you perform a series of upbeat numbers for Middle Eastern tyrants by pushing coloured buttons on a plastic guitar in time to the beat, while trying to drown out the nagging voice of your own conscience and the furious chants of the oppressed?

Suggested tracklisting: While My Qatar Gently Weeps; Gimme Gimme Gimme Oman After Midnight; Insane in the Bahrain; Here Comes Yemen; and 50 Ways To Libya Lover. Recommended retail price? $2m and counting.

Check it out.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Save Texas Schools!

Save Texas Schools
Why should Wisconsin have all the fun? Texas isn't known for its protest rallies. Folks around here generally aren't the radical types--even back in the days when the state was Yellow Dog Democrat, the population tended to have a conservative, don't-rock-the-boat outlook on society. So if you can get 10,000 Texans of all political stripe to turn out for a cause on a Saturday afternoon that doesn't involve high school or college football, well friends and neighbors, you know something's up.

The Wife and I packed up the kids this morning and made the trip up to Austin to participate in the Save Texas Schools rally. In case you've been living under a rock, Governor Rick Perry, in his infinite wisdom, has proposed a budget that cuts $10 billion from public education (and this doesn't even count the cuts to higher education, which is another issue entirely), which will result in nearly one third of teachers in Texas being laid off, and class rooms going from 22 students per to 40-50(!). The reason for these staggering cuts are simple: Texas schools are funded almost entirely by property taxes, and in 2006, Perry pushed through massive property tax cuts. Trouble is, he neglected to adequately compensate for those cuts with alternate funding sources, so Texas schools are facing a catastrophe of Perry's creation, and our dear governor is disavowing any responsibility. He's refusing to consider any new revenue sources, any new taxes, or tapping the state's $9 billion "Rainy Day Fund" to plug the shortfall until legislators can come up with a solution.

Fed up with Perry's stubborn refusal to deal with the problem in a constructive manner, not to mention the legislature's dithering, we--along with 10,000 of our closest friends--trekked to Austin for a march and rally to let our displeasure be known. What follows are some of the interesting photos The Wife shot during the day. This is only a small sample of them, though--check out her Save Our Schools photo gallery for more (there's some great stuff there, you really should check it out).

Save Texas Schools

My contempt for Gov. Perry is well-documented. I was gratified to see that my feelings are shared by many. Of course, with any big rally, the signs are the most entertaining part. Texans are no less creative at this than others, and Lone Star pride was a running theme. Probably the most pervasive image was an updating of the famous "Come and Take It" flag, substituting a no. 2 classroom pencil for the original brass cannon.

Save Texas Schools

It didn't take long for the ubiquitous Charlie Sheen reference to make its way through the crowd, leaving a trail of laughter in its wake.

Save Texas Schools

On thing I've seen online that troubles me is a dismissal of the rally, and by extension, all "Save Texas Schools" activity, as nothing more than greedy teachers union agitation. Why is this troubling? Because there are no teachers unions in Texas. At least not by any substantive measure. Texas is a right-to-work state, meaning unions here--as throughout the south--are impotent and mostly irrelevant. There is no collective bargaining, so Texas school funding deficit can't be blamed on any convenient union scapegoat (that's not to say certain parties haven't tried, though).

Save Texas Schools

I've recently endured some unpleasant insults--both oblique and direct--regarding my stand on public schools in Texas. That public schools are a waste of money, home schooling and private schools are better, and public school teachers are essentially worthless. I tend to react strongly to this. I come from a teacher family. My father taught high school for 22 years, and after that served on the school board for the better part of a decade. For all his faults, he was dedicated to teaching. He educated students who didn't cotton to no learnin' and went out of his way to help out the less fortunate, giving summer jobs to the less fortunate and always managing to "accidentally" over-pay them while boosting their sense of self-worth. My wife comes from a teaching family, too, and my father-in-law was as passionate about science in the classroom as he was about giving his best to the track team he coached although they were hampered by woefully inadequate facilities. He then spent years working as an assistant principal, trying to ensure a solid education for all while dealing with transfers into his school of students who'd departed Austin ISD because of "discipline problems" who had no interest in education of any sort.

Save Texas Schools

We have friends who are teachers--pretty much every teach who has ever had our children in class, going out of their way to engage and stimulate our daughters, giving them personal attention when they need it most. These same teachers thank us profusely when we send an extra box of tissue to school, since they're out in the classroom during cold season and there's no money in the budget to buy any more. Teacher who pay out of pocket for books to stock the classroom library, because, again, there's no money otherwise. Teachers don't go into teaching because of the glory, or the massive paychecks, or the cush working conditions. Teaching is a calling. That's something legislators and anti-public schooling types don't seem to grasp. So is it any wonder I take it personally when public school teachers are denigrated, and respond--forcefully--in kind? This is my stand, and I make no apologies for it.

Save Texas Schools

There was a time, no too long ago, when Texas Republicans and Democrats generally agreed on the importance of public education. That a strong public education system was the most valuable public good in the state, that and educated population meant a valuable population, attracting well-paying jobs and elevating business, the economy and ultimately social services. Somehow, somewhere, this went off the rails. Texas now ranks around 36th nationally for education spending per student, a ranking that would fall to 50th out of 50 states if Perry's budget plan passes. Texas students currently rank around 42nd nationally in the classroom, which prompts jokes about the Arkansas and Mississippi state legislatures passing resolutions that "Thank God for Texas!"

Save Texas Schools

As I said earlier, around 10,000 people from across the state turned out for the rally. The kick-off march stretched seven blocks. There were buses everywhere. There were people from Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth. One bunch drove all the way in from El Paso. There were teachers, parents, children, college students, grandparents, black, white, Hispanic... it was as pure a sampling of Texas' demographic as anyone could want. Everyone coming together for one purpose, to keep short-sighted politics from devastating Texas education for years to come.

Save Texas Schools

Earlier this week, Perry dismissed the coming rally, saying (with disingenuous flair), "The lieutenant governor, the speaker and their colleagues aren’t going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell. That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts." That smarmy, condescending comment immediately brought to mind Pontius Pilate famously washing his hands. A little melodramatic, of course, but the imagery is vivid nonetheless.

Save Texas Schools

Umbrellas were out in full force, symbolizing the demand that the legislature tap the state's $9 billion rainy day fund. Were the great Stevie Ray Vaughan still alive, he'd surely be singing "It's Flooding Down in Texas." What wasn't out in force was the Tea Party types. Online chatter had them staging a counter-rally to praise Perry for his hard line against, well, I suppose teachers and those darn pesky student who want to learn. Although The Wife and I looked for them, we never saw any. We saw a few "Don't Tread on Me" flags, but these were usually paired with "Come and Take It" flags, so I don't think they counted.

Save Texas Schools

All in all, it was inspiring to see so many Texans, from all walks of life, turn out to show they care about education. The United States is great because of education--the G.I. Bill following World War II produced the single most educated population in history, an advantage that took 60 years for the rest of the world to catch up to. Home schooling works for some, private school for others, but as a state, as a nation, these are not solutions that will render us competitive on a global state. Public education is the key to the future success of America, and we've got to strengthen our schools and reverse the appalling dropout rates rather than eviscerate the education budget and vilify our teachers. I'm teaching my children the value of education, and how to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem. The rally today was a tiny step in that direction.

Save Texas Schools


Sec. 1. SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

Let me close with a portion of Perrin-Whitt CISD Superintendent John Kuhn's amazing speech on the importance of public education. Kuhn is he of the eloquent open letter on behalf of all public education, which should stir the heart of any true Texas.

Where's Sam Houston when you need him?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Barbary Inc., a Failed States corporation

Watching the unfolding Libyan meltdown, emceed by Qaddafi's lunatic performance of self-parody that kills, it is difficult to step back from the immediate play-by-play. After all, these Arab revolts are the perfect antidote for our unrequited Obaman aspirations—our vicarious takeovers of the public square in some dusty CNN construction of a Indiana Jones film set provide a nice steam valve for our pent-up desire for actual change in our own society. Might there be more to be learned from this unlikely analog than the self-congratulatory platitudes of Washington pundits? (And does anyone remember when covert Libyan hit squads were roaming 80s America, disguised in Ray-Bans and curly Howard Chaykin mullets?)

When Iraq War "where are they now" supporting actor Mohammed el-Baradei parachuted into Cairo from his London lifestyle to volunteer to lead the opposition and run the country after Mubarak fell, eliciting the adulation of the Western media, my first reaction was to wonder what made anyone think the Egyptian multitude needed leadership—they were doing just fine as a smart mob-networked movement. While there's a big difference between a maniac like Qaddafi, who is like the Michael Jackson figure of 21st century geopolitics (Michael Jackson—with MiGs!), and an upstanding devotee of the rule of law like El-Baradei, the selflessness of any individual who presumes to say "I should be in charge here" is inherently suspect. Remember what Lord Acton said. And if power corrupts, shouldn't human progress include, on the political front, the further diffusion of power out of the hands of particular individuals and across the society? If we believe so devoutly in the invisible hand of the market as the basic social glue of our culture, why do we get so nervous about power vacuums that are not filled by some fucking dude adhering to the Al Haig paradigm?

Witness the New York Times, with its front page Sunday freakout, "The Vacuum After Qaddafi," expressing all of the angst of the oil-drunk West over the imminent possibility of that thing that we most fear: a "failed state." Failed states represent, in the minds of the Western establishment (meaning, Western states, and the elites that are part of their control, support, and legitimacy), the end of civilization, of global order, of peace—of themselves.

Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi sounded a resonant warning, exhorting his dwindling supporters toward civil war.

That is indeed the fear of those watching the carnage in Libya, not least because Colonel Qaddafi spent the last 40 years hollowing out every single institution that might challenge his authority. Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Libya lacks the steadying hand of a military to buttress a collapsing government. It has no Parliament, no trade unions, no political parties, no civil society, no nongovernmental agencies. Its only strong ministry is the state oil company. The fact that some experts think the next government might be built atop the oil ministry underscores the paucity of options.

The worst-case scenario should the rebellion topple him, and one that concerns American counterterrorism officials, is that of Afghanistan or Somalia — a failed state where Al Qaeda or other radical groups could exploit the chaos and operate with impunity.

Coming soon: Planet Somalia!

Might there actually be *good* things about this trend (other than the fact that you might get to see Gloria Vanderbilt's progeny the Abercrombie Edward R. Morrow get beat up by the mob a few more times)? Like representing potential answers to the question, at what point does Network culture evolve to the point where we can replace the idea of the sovereign with something that looks more like open source government?

The Times story shows the instincts of the West: hey, if these Arabs can't rule themselves, adopt an Uncle Tom El-Baradei who puts in place some animatronic simulation of a Western constitution, why not have the indigenous oil monopoly become the government? Kind of a perfect solution, in a way, if you consider that the governance structure of the contemporary corporation is the way the West best preserves the mode of the tribe, of the nomadic warrior band, with a militaristic command structure in which all power is vested in an individual leader under the back-slapping supervision of a committee of retired chiefs, the collective dedicated to the roaming search for plunder and profit. Surely that is a secretly compelling Western vision for the evolutionary direction of the "developing world"—small countries organized around natural resource monopolies, governed by Capital through the self-interest of post-tribal plutocrats, with weak militaries.

Late last week the Guardian featured a much fresher analysis by Hardt and Negri, arguing that the leaderless Arab revolts are the continuation of a trend seen in other uprisings in other parts of the world in recent years:

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it's Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google's head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don't understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre – that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organise autonomously.

While I am not persuaded Hardt & Negri have all the prescriptive answers, they have always been pretty insightful and even prescient in their analysis (see, e.g., Empire and Multitude). Those of us who were around at the birth of the Web remember the enthusiastic musings on the potential of the then-new medium to facilitate direct democracy. Well, we may not have replaced Congress with remote-control referenda, but the Network is taking over anyway, at least in other countries—the latest on Libya yesterday was the use of a Muslim Internet dating site as a clandestine hub for revolutionary communication and coordination. And the U.S. government may not want to arm the Libyan rebels, but what are they going to to when the Network empowers the next generation of rebels to print their own guns?

Might you actually want to live in the liberated territory of a Somalia that actually works?