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Getting real about ?real men?

The mining industry has become a ?safe haven? for the hyper-masculine man. This man is often competitive, sometimes aggressive. He is always rough and tough. Over the past few decades, the media and rampant commercialism have provided us with representations of the clean-shaven, hairless and buff male who waxes and grooms himself to metrosexual perfection.

But for the man who rejects this version of what it takes to be a man, the mining industry is where he can ?safely? not care about the way he looks, not care about what comes out of his mouth, and yet care very much about being a ?real man?.

The problem is that this ?real man? is not agreeable with safety standards now sought by businesses in this industry. The man who wants to be the toughest and the most masculine simply cannot be expected to act and stay safe.

It is already well established that men are more prone to risk-taking than women. Research has shown that gender plays a crucial role in driving cultures. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that males are two to three times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. And drivers with only male passengers are more likely to crash.

There is a tolerance among men for breaking the road rules. Young men, in particular, tend to underestimate the risks involved with driving. Instead, they often use objects like cars, as well as risk taking and rule breaking, to gain masculine prestige and bond with other men.

From an early age, a boy quickly learns that displays of masculinity will help him avoid ridicule and abuse. He is part of the ?in crowd? if he has a large body, can cope with pain, competes and wins. If he really wants to be seen as a worthy man, he should also degrade others, particularly women and homosexuals.

He may be encouraged to commit acts of violence against other people and other things. And this fight for his manhood doesn?t end when he leaves the playground. Throughout his life, the pressure is on him constantly to prove himself to be a real man.

The mining industry in Australia is awash with men who act out their masculinity in this way.

Mining is a significant industry in terms of contribution to the national economy, particularly exports, and employment in Western Australia. It is an industry that defies the national statistics in regard to employment of men and women. On a national level, about 45 per cent of the work force is women. In the mining industry, it is about 18 per cent.

Nationally, mining is also one of the most dangerous industries. According to Safe Work Australia, it accounted for nine per cent of work-related fatalities in 2008-09. Of the 177 fatalities notified to Safe Work Australia for that year, it is also significant that 158 were men.

In this industry, more than most, we need people who are willing to recognise their own vulnerability. We need workers who understand the limits and fragility of their own body. And yet we strongly encourage the man who wants to be a ?real man? to work here. We recruit the same breed and promote those who fit the same mould. And we fail to question the hyper-masculine behaviours they exhibit.

In a place where there are so many men competing to be masculine, any request for assistance to lift an object will be seen as a sign of weakness. Any request for a new pair of gloves before commencing a job will open up the worker to ridicule.

Company policies tell every worker that safety must come before production. But any request to stop work because of a concern for safety is taken as evidence that this man is less of a ?real man? than those around him. The man who cannot or who will not carry a heavy weight is a ?pussy?. The man who puts his hands to his ears to muffle the sound is a ?softie?.

Peer pressure ensures safety is only for ?sissies?, whereas a ?real man? takes risks and gets the job done. So we often hear barbs like ?Toughen up, princess? and ?Don?t be such a faggot?.

The impact of all this on new employees, and the few women who manage to make it into the field, is equally strong. Eager to fit in, they too must quickly adopt hyper-masculine mannerisms and language to mimic those who currently dominate the space. Some will start to use the same language and verbalise the same ideas.

Others will become passively involved by refusing to say anything in response. They may even find that they have no voice with which to defend themselves and will leave, thereby perpetuating the hyper-masculine man?s belief that you have to be tough to survive in this industry.

In social contexts where hyper-masculinity is recognised as a problem, we are starting to see the development and delivery of targeted solutions. In road safety, for example, we now have advertisements aimed at young men specifically, using images and language that resonate with them. In sport, and particularly those sports where we see a continuing disrespect for women, peer-mentoring programmes are being used to change how groups of men challenge and support each other?s behaviours.

In the mining industry, however, we have generalised training programmes that only seek to develop a greater self-awareness and safety consciousness. We have not yet seen any attempt to address how otherwise socially accepted masculine behaviours are actually putting people at risk.

Discussions on gender in the mining industry to date have been limited to under-representation of women in the overall workforce and the so-called glass ceiling they hit when there. We have assumed, wrongly, that safety has nothing to do with gender ? yet it is mostly men who are getting hurt.

Dr Dean Laplonge is the founding director of Factive, a Perth-based communications consultancy.

This article is reprinted from MineSafe 19(1), with the kind permission
of Resources Safety, WA Department of Mines and Petroleum, and Dr Dean Laplonge, Factive.

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