Unmasking Manly Men: The Organizational Reconstruction of Men's Identity

By Robin J. Ely Debra E. Meyerson

This paper presents a case study of offshore oil platforms—a workplace that has traditionally rewarded men for masculine displays of prowess and interactions centered on proving masculinity—in which such displays and interactions were absent. We use this case to develop theory about how organizational features, such as work practices and norms, can disrupt conventional masculine identity-construction processes. In this case, organizational features designed to enhance safety and effectiveness had the unintended effect of changing how men enacted their masculine identities at work. Interview and participant observation data show that the major reorientation was away from seeking to garner masculinity credentials and towards seeking to learn how to perform their jobs more safely and effectively. The latter required that workers engage in mutual expressions of vulnerability: they acknowledged their physical limitations, learned from their mistakes, and attended to their own and others’ emotions. As a result, these men expressed a broader repertoire of personal qualities, including qualities that run counter to conventionally masculine scripts. Our findings point to the mutability of masculine identity as a social status achievement and to how organizations can disrupt such tendencies and stand to gain in the process.