05/26/2010 06:34 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

One Giant Oil Rig

I had never paid too much attention to oil rigs until sitting on a panel with Deborah Meyerson of Stanford University. She described research she had conducted with Robin Ely of Harvard that explored how focusing on safety on these dirty dangerous places had allowed men to abandon behaviors traditionally associated with masculinity. They literally made themselves vulnerable for the sake of the survival of all aboard.

Ely's team was studying gender roles, and they focused on how masculinity could be re-shaped by changing the work environment. They chose the oil rigs on the Gulf Coast as their subject, helicoptered out and lived there to see this transformation. What they found was fascinating: men, for the sake of safety and productivity, were encouraged to abandon the bravado, risk taking, and denying failure associated with tough jobs like these and make themselves, "vulnerable." As a result the riggers shared with their supervisors and co-workers when they weren't quite up to snuff that day, felt free to admit to mistakes, and asked questions about information they didn't understand.

The results of these experiments were equally astounding. There were 84% fewer accidents and increased productivity that exceeded the company's benchmarks when men exchanged behaviors traditionally associated with masculinity and competence for more non-heroic traits. And beyond those outcomes, the study's results showed, "how organizational features might encourage people to resist those stereotypes," says Ely.

I have thought of this so often with reference to the Deep Horizon spill, where, as it turns out, just before the big blow-out, there had been a celebration of seven years with no accidents on this particular oil rig. But as Mike Williams, one of the last crew members to escape from the rig told Scott Pelley in his harrowing account of survival on 60 Minutes a week ago, precursors for the accident had been building for weeks.

Williams talked about the pressure that kept building to drill faster as the time table of finishing the job in 21 days expanded to 6 weeks with the accompanying profitability loss. And as safety gave way to time pressure, the most vital piece of equipment, the blow-out preventer, was damaged. When the workers pointed out this system failure, they were told it was "no problem."

He also described the locking of horns between BP executives and Transnational (the company that actually ran the rig). This clash of the 2 corporations in charge of the rig sent a message to the crew that leadership was back, and that the teamwork the crew had displayed, complete with measures and practices that would keep them and the ocean they worked in safe, was over. The end of this tale is now the worst oil spill in history. Eleven men are dead and with it the fish and fowl, and the dreams and livelihood of countless others as the spill continues.

I follow this story every day, and I think of the big blow-outs that have happened in the last decade and how bravado has triumphed and the people of this country, and the world, have lost.

I think of all the whistle blowers in the financial crises, from those who warned the SEC about Bernard Madoff, to the journalists and economists who harped on creating financial institutions that were the equivalent of a house of cards, blow-out preventers if there ever were any.

As the fall-out from financial crisis continues to play out, that speculation has grown to include articles and inquiries about whether if there had been more women leaders in the financial sector, there would have been a crisis of such proportion. I think there's a good chance women's blow-out prevention traits might have prevailed

And in regard to foreign affairs, I am reminded of Jessica Tuchman Matthew's proposal for, "aggressive inspections" as an alternative to going to war with Iraq. She asked that every site where there was any hint of weapons be inspected and even destroyed if inspectors weren't satisfied; a proposal I am told stayed on the table until a week before the invasion. Think of the blow-out prevention that would have been.

Women have been socialized to be more risk-smart cooperative, vulnerable and open to admitting our mistakes and failures. We have our own lessons to learn about feminine roles, but one is the collusion we offer by maintaining the status quo that serves to keeping man-ly men behaviors in place.

To take the metaphor all the way , our country and our world seem to me like one gigantic oil rig: an increasingly dangerous place where we have developed instrumentalities that should have improved our lives but which, when spun out of control have put us all in danger. Scientific discoveries that allow us to kill each other in massive numbers; financial wizardry whose fall out is causing loss of our jobs and homes; products that produce wastes that clog our rivers and oceans and kill the lands and waters that we are so dependent on.

All of this spills out in ways that like the oil on the gulf waters are becoming beyond our capacity to contain.

So how, if making safety the issue could so alter behavior on oil rigs, why we aren't able to do it on the big rigs we live and float across space on?

For the sake of the safety of the planet, why can't we find some way to cooperate across boundaries, to make ourselves vulnerable, to admit mistakes and learn from failures? Man-ly man behavior in men and acquiescence to these behaviors by women will have to be abandoned. If we don't pay attention to this, we may be one big unplugged event from our demise.