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"Real men are tough guys": hegemonic masculinity and safety in the construction industry.

There is considerable debate in the field of industrial sociology concerning the precise impact that the culture of masculinity has on the lives of working-class men. There are different opinions about it depending which theorist you read. Lynch (1997), citing Connell (1995), argues that manual labourers embody an "ideal type" of manliness called "protest masculinity." This gender culture is characterised by horseplay and aggressiveness. In his analysis of the British building industry circa 1918, Hayes (2002) reveals that workers impeded the development of welfarism (amenities, annual leave, etc.) because they believed that "true men" should be able to tolerate harsh working conditions (Hayes, 2002; p. 238). Williams (1993) and Hopkins (1995) reject the notion of masculinity altogether arguing that blue-collar workers' thinking is conditioned by their class position. During the six months I spent on building sites as an undisclosed ethnographic researcher and the 20 interviews I conducted, I developed my own interpretation regarding the manner in which this culture functions. In this article, I examine how a particular network of dominant social relations functions in the construction industry. The major argument put forward here is that the hegemonic masculine construct most commonly found on building sites in Victoria (Australia) serves to create a gender hierarchy, and this informal power matrix influences builders' perceptions of occupational health and safety (OH&S) so that they become less concerned about their welfare. This article is divided into (1) dimensions of masculinity, (2) the gender hierarchy, (3) one-upmanship, and finally (4) hegemonic masculinity and perceptions of OH&S.


In this section, I explore masculinity on building sites. The masculine culture in this situation consists of five distinct but not completely unrelated dimensions: (1) gender identity and sexuality, (2) girl-watching, (3) risk and physical prowess, (4) horseplay and larrikinism, and (5) alcohol consumption. I draw upon my field observations and interviews to demonstrate how they function.


The construction worker's world is not only designated as male, it is also defined as heterosexual (Paap, 1999; p. 9). A substantial amount of general discussion between construction workers centres on the issues of heterosexuality and men's genitalia. Five weeks into my ethnography, I was working on a supermarket refurbishment. I encountered Dave in the toilet at 15 past 11, and he commented, "I once read in a book about a prostitute that a tradesman's tools only operate as well as he uses them." This comment was a generic reference to heterosexuality. As he explained it, the point he was trying to get across was that "it is not the size of a man's penis that counts; it is how he utilizes it."

Four days later, I was sitting in the lunch shed for morning tea. I observed a construction worker as he read two stories out of the newspaper loud enough to allow everybody to hear. The common theme in the news articles was the discussion of male genitalia. The first story involved a vindictive 33-year-old wife who cut off her 81-year-old husband's penis before murdering him. The second case depicted a male streaker who was pursued by police. Upon his apprehension, he was thrust into a wire fence. "Boy, that must've really hurt his testicles," exclaimed the tradesman after he finished regaling us with this story.

On day 34, I was sent to work on a site where factories were being constructed. At lunchtime, I was sitting in the lunch shed with Karl (the foreman) and Allen and David (labourers). Karl turned to me and said, "Allen wants to go work in a morgue." "Why?" I asked. "Why do you think?" "You're sick, Allen, isn't that called necrophilia?" I cried out. "Yeah, I think that's what it's called," said David. "At least if you work in a place like that, there's little chance you'll get knocked back by any women," I said while grinning. The trio found this remark humorous.

The importance of heterosexuality, sexual prowess, and the value placed on a man's penis was not only conveyed to me in workplace discussions. When I strolled around buildings sites, I encountered many drawings of oversized penises and pictures of objectified women in compromising sexual positions. Here are some of the examples of the scrawlings. The first example was found on a site in Caulfield where a series of apartments were being erected.
 There was a scrawling of a naked man with a bushy chest and an
 oversized penis on a concrete pillar in the lunchroom. A scrawling
 of a naked woman with long hair and an accentuated vagina
 appeared below the man. Below her, there was a crude drawing of
 a penis the size of her entire body. (Fieldnotes)

I spotted the remaining scrawlings while I was working for On-time Labour Hire. I discovered them in the toilets of a six-storey building that was nearing completion:
 A crude drawing of a penis with a ruler appeared on the wall. "My
 9 inch long" was written below. In the second cubicle of the toilets
 on the fourth floor, there are several crude drawings of penises.
 There is also a picture of a man ejaculating over a naked woman
 with her legs spread open. (Fieldnotes)

These examples provide insight into the construction worker's psyche. They reveal that the men pay a lot of attention to their genitalia and have specific ideas about women's function in society. It is conceivable that they were uncensored expressions because these scrawlings were not made in the presence of others. They provide insight into workers' perceptions of gender relations and how tradesmen's masculine identities are linked to virility and sexual conquest.


Over many decades, girl-watching had been a common pastime on construction sites. Many tradesmen will observe women who walk by their workplace and comment about their physical parameters to their peers (or even to the women) every chance they get. This practice gives rise to a whole series of issues. Sometimes the women are within earshot of the workers and find their remarks abhorrent. In a minority of cases, the tradesmen can take their harassment too far, resulting in legal charges. The construction, forestry, mining, and energy union (CFMEU) has tried to stamp out this practice by introducing sanctions for anybody caught making offensive comments to bystanders. Upon arrival at many sites, you are informed that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. On one occasion, I worked on a site that was located in a private girls' school. I was told by the shop steward that if I were to make any sexual innuendos to the girls, I would be asked to leave the site. But I soon discovered that despite building companies' best efforts, this practice still occurs.

On the first day of my participant-observation research, I was sent to work on a site where they were erecting a large factory. I partook in two instances of girl-watching with three other men who worked for Jupiter's (a labour hire company). We were located on the second-floor office section of the construction site, which overlooked a road. On two occasions, young women walked by, and we all ran over to ogle them. Tony, a middle-aged carpenter, said, "Have a look at the tits on her."

Making a reference to a woman's physical attributes was very common and it normally occurred moments after all the workers had huddled together to partake in this act of voyeurism. On day 48 of my research, I was stationed at a Jewish girls' school that was undergoing a partial renovation. At lunchtime, Neil (the site foreman) and I were walking to a 7-Eleven. We passed a female pedestrian. Neil looked at me and said, "Boy, did you see the size of her tits?"

In his research on voyeurism in the building industry, the American sociologist Feigelman (1974) discovered that remaining undetected was a fundamental rule of girl-watching (Feigelman, 1974; p. 41). Feigelman spent three months on a construction site in a large city as a participant-observer. The key findings of his research are as follows: voyeurism is determined by social variables, a worker's proclivity to peep is influenced by group dynamics, and girl-watching performs the function of encouraging social integration (Feigelman, 1974; p. 36).

Feigelman's notion of the importance of going unnoticed was reinforced by my own observations. Five months into my ethnography, I was working on a series of offices in Kew. One day after my morning break, Robert (the OH&S officer) and I continued pulling down a wire fence at the rear of the building site. Robert was standing on a ladder, and he began to peek through a crack in the corrugated iron fence behind the one we were tearing down. He noticed a young woman washing her automobile in the car wash on the adjacent property. He looked at me and said, "Boy, she's a nice-looking girl. Here, come up this ladder and take a look."

Another important issue that Feigelman raises is that, in the construction industry, peeping serves a critical social function. It brings people together who would not otherwise fraternise with one another. A worker may not have the strongest desire to scrutinise a woman's physical characteristics. But he is more likely to do so if his peers are already engaged in this behaviour (Feigelman, 1974; pp. 42-45). Furthermore, this voyeuristic activity has an important intergroup dimension. Workers have an obligation to facilitate each other's peeping experiences. When a worker spots a woman and makes a remark about her to his coworkers, they are in a moral position to validate his actions by agreeing that the female is attractive or sexually desirable. In the late stages of my fieldwork, I was working on a site where a series of flats were being erected. After morning tea, John and I were labouring on the third-storey scaffolding located at the front of the building site. A female jogger who appeared to be in her late 30s to early 40s ran past. I looked over at him and made him aware of her presence with a motion of my head. John smiled at me and said, "I'd bend that over, I suppose." In this instance, I was complicit in reinforcing the masculine culture. This is because I had undergone socialisation into an environment where such behaviour was the norm.


On a building site, there is a belief that men need to be tough and should not be afraid to partake in physically demanding tasks. Men should also value what are considered "real sports" (e.g., football) and need to embody a daredevil attitude. The first time I observed the importance of this was one week after I was stationed on the supermarket renovation. I was sitting in the lunchroom with three electricians during lunchtime. The three men were sharing their fondness for water-skiing. One electrician in particular gained excitement from reaching high speeds on water-skis. Men's need to recklessly pilot motor vehicles at high velocities is supported by Australian statistics on fatalities and injuries. Walker (1998) reports that young males are over-represented in motor vehicle related deaths.

Two days later, I was digging in the partitioned area at the rear of the supermarket. From 10:00 to 12:30, Dominic and Joel discussed the topic of snow sports. They then spoke about altercations for an additional 40 minutes. The discourse focused on ingenious ways of defeating enemies when they possess greater strength than you. For the major proportion of our lunchtime recess, Joel and Dominic shared instances when they had witnessed violence on the football field.

This next discussion occurred several days later during "smoko" (colloquial for morning break). In the course of our morning break, Dave and I began discussing the weekend's English football results. "How did you like Manchester United's performance? 3-0, a good result, hey?" Dave asked me. "You're not talking about soccer again, are you? Find another topic," Joel cried out. This comment ignited a debate between the workers who supported soccer (Dave and I) and those who disliked the sport and preferred Australian-rules football (everybody else). Soccer in Australia was condemned for producing dull contests and not demanding a sufficient level of physical endurance from its players.

Construction workers not only value machismo behaviour and physical toughness in the field of athleticism. Many tradesmen believe that involving oneself in an altercation is an acceptable means of resolving a grievance. Indeed, many tradesmen placed a high value on fisticuffs. Take the third-year apprentice Joel as an example. Joel was raised in an environment where the use of physical force to solve one's disputes was commonplace. He boasted that he could have defeated the "Greek tiler" (with whom he had a verbal joust prior to starting on the supermarket renovation). He also divulged that he had frequently been involved in physical struggles with his siblings.

In July 2002, I was assisting in the construction of a library at an exclusive girls' school. When I arrived at the site one morning, I had a conversation with John (site foreman) on the topic of fighting. John said, "If I'm backed into a corner by five guys trying to bash me, I use the element of surprise to my advantage. I'll knock one of the bastards out, and the rest will run away."


This constitutes the fourth dimension of masculinity on building sites. This cultural component encompasses activities ranging from playing minor pranks on people, such as affixing a sticker on their back and allowing them to walk around with it (in view of others) for the rest of the day, to more elaborate farces such as this one:
 Other sort of jokes, I ride a pushbike when I can to my site, and
 one day my bike was completely gone, and I found it wired inside
 the ceiling space, and the ladders were all chained up so I couldn't
 go home. (Interviewee's recollection)

Larrikinism or mischievous behaviour has been a subject of interest for sociologists. In his classic study of a Ford car manufacturing plant, Beynon (1973) found that young men's machismo behaviour created life-threatening situations. In the late 1960s, the Halewood plant was forced to lower the minimum age of employment to 18, consequently employing a larger number of adolescents. As is the case among many young people, they participated in practical jokes. For example, the "lads" crafted hand grenades made by combining flammable adhesives and hurled them into nearby rubbish bins. The resulting explosion produced flames 20 feet high. Someone could have easily been killed by this practice (Beynon, 1973; p.139).

Willis (1977) examined the behaviour of a specific group of male school children who were designated "the lads." These boys embraced a "counter school culture" that emphasized the use of force to dominate weaker adolescents, heterosexual promiscuity, and a dislike for formal authority.

Years later, the University of Newcastle academic Lynch (1997) studied larrikinism in N.S.W's construction industry. Adapting Connell's (1995) theory, Lynch distinguishes between two different types of masculinity. He calls the first "protest masculinity," which on a building site manifests itself as larrikin- style behaviour. The second is called "complicit masculinity," more associated with domination via institutional power (Lynch, 1997; p. 76). Lynch argues that the working class embraces protest masculinity and the middle class is complicit with it. The complicit male defines his masculinity through institutional power obtained through education and hard work. The protest man defines his manhood through the use of physical force and an aversion for management. In Lynch's conceptualisation, these two groups are in conflict with one another. The complicit male wages a battle against the protest man by controlling the division of labour and through the utilization of academic and social capital. Through the media, he depicts the protest man as unruly and troublesome, wishing only to bring the building industry to a standstill (Lynch, 1997; pp. 79-83).

Having briefly reviewed the literature, I now discuss occasions when I observed this practice. This incident took place three weeks after I had been stationed on the supermarket refurbishment. I was walking down a thoroughfare. Dave was proceeding up the walkway (presumably to the foreman's office). As he passed me, I noticed that he had a large sticker glued to his back. I got his attention, approached him, and removed the label from his left shoulder. "Thank you, David, for removing that sticker!" exclaimed Dave. Several minutes later, I encountered Dave at the rear of the construction site. He was working with Bill and John (the concreter). He turned to me and said in a loud voice, "Dave, I bet you it was one of these bastards that stuck that sticker on my back." Both John and Bill vehemently denied the accusation.

In June of 2002, I was helping a group of shopfitters outfit a large factory. I was working for Ron, who was the leading hand of the shop-fitters. Ron was a jovial man who would continually engage in minor acts of horseplay. For example, when I asked him the location of the site toilets, he said that there were none and that I would have to cross the street. After a brief pause, he told me he was not being serious and pointed me in the right direction. Another shop-fitter would constantly joke about the size of the vacuum cleaner I was using (it was the variety that you strap onto your back). He lamented that it had insufficient suction, and he urged me to find a more powerful one.

The aforementioned field observations demonstrate that horseplay encompasses a broad range of activities. My interviewees also reported many occasions when they had observed acts of bravado. For example, Ian, a 48-year-old asbestos worker, discusses some of the kinds of larrikinism that occurred on the sites he worked on:
 Ian: We used a lot of tape and all that sort of stuff, and people
 went up ladders, and you would put tape around their legs so they
 couldn't get down from the ladders, things like that, you know?

 David: So you've actually seen that happen?

 Ian: I've done it to people, and people have done it to me, you
 know; you do payback, you say, "Payback's a bitch. I'll get you
 sooner or later," you know?

 David: And what sort of reaction does that person have when you
 do that?

 Ian: A bit of swearing. "You bastard." They chase you down and
 say, "When I get down from here I'll have you."


Alcohol consumption is the final dimension of masculinity. Generally speaking, it is a significant part of men's lives. Fletcher (1997) reports that 62 percent of men in the general population compared with 40 percent of women drink alcohol at least once per week. Additionally, men are more than three times as likely to be drinking in excess amounts. Alcohol consumption is an important aspect of the masculine culture found in the building industry. According to many construction workers, "real men" look forward to occasions when they can drink beer, and men who do not are considered to be effeminate. Riemer (1979) discovered that the practice of consuming copious amounts of alcohol figured prominently in American construction workers' perceptions of themselves as genuine and working-class males. In the time I spent in the field, tradesmen devoted a lot of time to planning collective drinking sessions. On the first day of my research, I was sent to assist in the construction of a factory in Scorsby. Craig, a labourer from Jupiter's, commented on many occasions that he was looking forward to the evening because he would be free to consume large amounts of alcohol. He suggested that after we had completed the day's work, we should all head down to the nearest hotel.

On another occasion, I was working on a girls' school. During "smoko," the following discussion transpired. "Are you going to the pub tonight?" asked Peter (a young demolition worker) of Trevor (the leading hand). "I'm not sure," he replied. "Of course you are. Where else would you go on a Friday night?" remarked Peter.

When tradesmen were not planning the next occasion when they would drink beer to the point of paralysis, alcohol would arise as the topic in other ways. This discussion took place between two tradesmen who were working at the supermarket refurbishment. During "smoko," I was sitting in the first lunch shed. The refrigeration man was reading the newspaper and made the following comment. "Not another story about a drunk driver. Why don't they leave them alone? Why don't they pick on all the people who take heroin and then drive? You should be able to take a test where you can get a license to drive around drunk," said Joel with a smirk. "This permit should only be given to people who can prove that they are capable of safely driving a car whilst under the influence." This comment made the refrigeration man laugh.

In the construction industry, there is pressure placed on the nondrinker to become one and ultimately a peer-group member. The following events occurred on a building site in Kew. At the end of a particular day, Robert and I entered the underground car park to access our vehicles. As I entered, I noticed that 12 tradesmen had congregated in the car park, and they were consuming beer. They offered Robert a beer, and he picked up a can and joined the group. Two days later, Nigel (another labourer from Jupiter's) and I were heading towards our cars at the end of the day. We encountered eight tradesmen sitting on big rolls of carpet drinking alcohol. As we walked past, they offered us a beer each. Nigel and I accepted, and we joined them. By Nigel's own admission, he does not like beer, but in this case he accepted their invitation because of the peer-group situation.


Having explored the masculine culture in the construction industry, I will now take this picture one step further and argue that gender-based practices serve to create a hierarchy among tradesmen. This pecking order is established by the men's subscription to a particular configuration of male culture called hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is the most common blueprint in Western culture regarding the way men should behave and the goals they should aspire to. It is an imagined construct rather than a practical one. Only a select few actually possess all the traits associated with this gender ideology. However, the majority still holds its principles in the highest esteem (Paap, 1999; p. 190). It is my contention that different versions of this cultural architecture exist in different socioeconomic groups and in various organisations, often fed by the same messages via advertising and the mass media.

The hegemonic masculine construct found on building sites is characterised by Cheng (1999), whose article Marginalised Masculinities and Hegemonic Masculinity is an introduction to the theoretical debates concerning this topic. He defines the dominant masculine culture with these adjectives:
 ... [D]omination, aggressiveness, competitiveness, athletic
 prowess, stoicism, and control. Aggressive behaviour if not outright
 physical violence is important to the presentation of hegemonic
 masculinity.... Love, affection, pain, and grief are improper
 displays of emotion. (p. 298)

This description of hegemonic masculinity suits the gender performances that thrive in the construction industry, but Cheng overstates his case by assuming that these are the characteristics of the hegemonic culture in general. While office and whitecollar workers subscribe to overt heterosexual displays, an integral part of the dominant male culture, I do not believe they value physical toughness and fisticuffs as much as manual labourers do.


Hegemonic masculinity in the construction industry is developed in conjunction with femininities and subordinated masculine configurations such as effeminate gender performances. The heterosexual man's self-identity depends on his dislike of these other gender constructs (Cheng, 1999; p. 297). In this case, I am using the term "subordinated gender constructs" to denote the various gender configurations on building sites that are targeted by the workers who subscribe to the hegemonic male culture. I acknowledge that Tolson (1977), Connell (1982), Donaldson (1991), and Pease (2002) depict working-class masculinity as a subordinated gender construct in itself. However, this issue is not the focus here, and I am more concerned about the dissemination of power within organisations in the spirit of social theorists like Tausky (1970).

In my field observations, the notion of gender subordination was conveyed to me in the guise of attitudes and practices toward women. The blue-collar workers had specific ideas about women's place in relation to men and how they should be treated. On the first day of my field observations, I was stationed on a site in Scorsby where a factory was under construction. At morning tea, I purchased some food from a van. A construction worker told the rest of us that he wanted to receive fellatio from the woman who operated the food van.

Several weeks into my research, I was working on a supermarket renovation. One day, we started work at four in the morning because our work crew needed to cut the floor inside the store with a deafening machine. It would have been too disruptive to the normal functioning of the supermarket if we did it during business hours. The man operating the cutting device made the following remark to Rob. "Smash that slab really hard. Pretend it's your girlfriend." At that moment, Rob was attempting to upend a freshly cut concrete slab with a long crowbar.

In the afternoon, Joel and I were dumping concrete slabs into the refuse, which was located in the loading bay. The large bricks were coated in a thick greyish paste, so I was using a pair of gloves. Joel was reluctant to carry them because he had no gloves. "Surely you own a pair of gloves," I asked. "Don't you use gloves when you clean the dishes at home?" "Clean the dishes?" Joel answered in bewilderment. "I never set foot in either the kitchen or the laundry. They're the places where the bitches work." "Who are you talking about?" I inquired with growing alarm. "My mother and my girlfriend," replied Joel.

The next day, I was sitting in front of the lunch shed during our midday break. Five tilers were sprawled in front of the lunchroom. One tiler said, "You know, I'd fuck anything that moves. Don't you just hate it when you're fucking a girl and she starts talking to you? You just give her a slap in the face and say, 'Shut up and let me finish my business.'"

When I finished working at the supermarket renovation site, I was sent to work on a group of apartments in Balaclava. One afternoon, it began to rain heavily. The deluge forced two scaffolders and me to seek refuge in a lunch shed. As they waited for the rain to subside, they engaged in a discussion about their sexual experiences. "Have you ever had sex with a mother?" one scaffolder said to the other. "No, have you ever had a threesome?" "Yes, this one time...."

A month after this, I was sent to work on the construction of a library at an exclusive girls' school. Ben (a labourer from Jupiter's) made a comment about his relationship with his girlfriend: "I'm the Alfa-dog, and she's the Beta-dog. Do you know what I mean by that David?" "Yes," I said and nodded my head, "you're the boss, and she's the one who takes orders."

After I finished up at this school, I worked in yet another girls' private college. After visiting the convenience store, I sat down in the lunchroom with Neil and the two Italian bricklayers. As we consumed our sustenance, we had a conversation about street prostitution in St Kilda. "They're better off working in a licensed brothel than on the streets. Anything can happen to them there. They can get raped," I said. "They don't mind getting raped," replied one of the bricklayers in a serious tone.

The next two events occurred on an office block in Kew during August of 2002. At lunchtime, I was sitting in a lunch shed with Robert, Karl, and a plumber (corpulent with a shaved head). The plumber entertained us with a story about a car accident he was involved in. A mother of two crashed into his vehicle, and she was unable to pay for the damage. This is how the plumber explained it. "This woman, she started telling me about her whole life story. How she couldn't pay because she was raising two kids." "So she had your dick in her mouth, did she?" asked Karl. In this case, Karl characterised the woman's desire to appease the plumber in a misogynistic fashion.

These final examples both occurred while I was employed by On-time Labour Hire. Glen, the lanky lift operator, made this remark to me in relation to his sexual interactions. "When I bring a woman back to my house, I fuck her and then I tell her to get the fuck out of my house." The next morning, I was riding the elevator with Glen. He said, "Everybody wants to ride my lift, even the Sheilas." "There are no sheilas around, mate, only blokes," I replied with a wry smile. "There's one walking around the site from Schevello [an interior decorating company]," said Glen. "I tell you what, if I get her in my lift, it will be out of service for an hour while I rape her."

As can be seen in these excerpts, constructions workers have particular views about women's place in the world. I overheard many conversations where women were objectified, depicted as servile, and viewed as best suited to domestic duties and only being of value to men in a sexual capacity. In some cases, the notion of sexual assault was apparently acceptable. However, not all men on building sites are complicit in sustaining the dominant masculine culture. In fact, these two examples will demonstrate that a minority is not. The first involves Detlef, a carpenter I met while I was working on an office block in Kew:
 At smoko, Detlef was reading The Age and began talking to me
 about a report on a recent gang rape in Melbourne. The report
 stated that the "ring leader" received 55 years of imprisonment for
 his role in the crime. Detlef felt that the gang rape of the
 20-year-old girl was a crime of unspeakable brutality. (Fieldnotes)

Detlef's view indicates that he feels sympathy for the victims of such crimes. This final comment was made by a labourer I encountered while I was assisting in the renovation of a storey of a city building:
 At lunchtime, the older construction worker was reading the Herald
 Sun and came across a report about the DNA analysis of a man
 who raped two women. The test was a police effort to link the man
 to another crime. He said, "How's that? The police are testing this
 guy's DNA to see if he committed a rape in another state, and his
 lawyer is claiming that it's an invasion of his privacy. What about
 the privacy of the girls he raped? Isn't that important?"

These examples are significant because they indicate that a small portion of men try to resist the influences of the hegemonic masculine culture. This trend can be seen as part of a general development where men are challenging traditional patriarchal relations in order to improve women's welfare. This is exemplified by men's groups such as the Victorian-based "No to Violence," which provides counseling services for men who harm their partners (No to Violence, 2004).


On building sites, if a worker wishes to insult another man, he will often question the individual's membership in the dominant masculine culture. The tradesman will achieve this by accusing the man of being in possession of qualities typically associated with subordinate gender constructions. On a building site in Kew, there was a hand-written notice posted next to the fridge in the second lunch shed that read, "For those of you with limp wrists, if you find that the milk carton is too heavy to return to the fridge, please ask for assistance." This notice was evidently made by an individual who became annoyed when he continually found the communal milk carton outside of the fridge. Such a practice ensured that the milk would spoil and the tradesmen would be left without milk to put in their coffee. After this notice was put up, nobody left the dairy product out again. This sanction functioned because physical strength is valued in the hegemonic masculine culture, and anybody who is found lacking it is viewed as effeminate.

The allegation of homosexuality was frequently used as another way to insult a person. This incident occurred while I was working at the supermarket renovation. Joel made this remark moments after a Savage Garden song was on the radio, "Oh, no, not that poncey guy [i.e: Darren Hayes, lead singer]. He's a pillow-biter." "Pillow-biter" is a colloquial term for homosexuality.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures reveal that women only constitute 12 percent of the industry's workforce. Those women employed in the industry are concentrated in administrative and accounting positions with only eight percent involved in physical work (ABS, 2002). When women who work on building sites embody the values of masculinity, they are accepted by other men (Eisenberg, 1998; pp. 82-83). Although I did not encounter any female manual workers during my field observations, some of the men who participated in my interviews did. Craig, a 22-year-old carpenter, recalled a case where a female labourer was on site:
 Craig: On the Sheraton in Geelong, there was a woman labourer

 David: O really? What sort of relationship would the men have
 with the female labourer? I mean, would they say anything particular
 to her?

 Craig: Na, she had obviously worked with the company for a
 while; she was just part of the crew.

 David: She was treated...?

 Craig: She was treated pretty good, actually.

 David: Ok, so no one ever made any jokes about her or anything
 like that?

 Craig: Not really; she fitted in. The boys went to the pub after
 work, and she'd go to the pub with the boys. Yeah, she was just
 one of them.

In this excerpt, the female labourer in question was spared from being ostracised because her gender performance was consistent with the one prescribed to construction workers by hegemonic masculinity. By Craig's own admission, she was just "one of the boys" and even engaged in ritualistic masculine behaviour by devoting her evenings to alcohol consumption with her all-male work crew. However, had she behaved in a manner that was more consistent with conventional femininity, she would have become the subject of ridicule. Cameron, a 39-year-old ex-foreman, has worked on a site where there were eight female construction workers:
 David: How were they treated?

 Cameron: Oh, poorly, I think.... Yeah, look, some of them could
 hold their own, so they were all right, but the others couldn't hold
 their own, really; they were more feminine than the others, and
 they were the butts of many jokes.

 David: Were they like sexist jokes?

 Cameron: Yeah, mainly sexist jokes and even about lifting things,
 you know, things like that. You know, they'd be given equipment
 that would be miniature in size. You might be using scrubbing
 brushes or something like that. They'd be given a tiny one, a bottle
 brush, "Here, this is yours because you're weak."

 David: So basically they were constantly reminded that in a physical
 sense they were weaker than the rest?

 Cameron: Some of them weren't. I tell you what--there was some
 there that could mix it with the guys and certainly give it out as
 much as they took.... They were referred to in derogatory terms as
 being butch, and they would then stir the other weaker females or
 the more feminine females like the guys would, and they were

 David: So they would actually end up stirring the weaker females?

 Cameron: Yeah, they wouldn't protect them at all; they'd certainly
 give them heaps as well.

In Cameron's example, the female workers' inability to embody the hegemonic masculine value of physical strength cost them dearly. They were the subject of ridicule and systematic mocking as exemplified by the gift of the small equipment to remind them of their physical inferiority. On Cameron's building site, a gender hierarchy also came to exist between female labourers. Once again, a worker's location on this hierarchy depended on her gender performance in relation to the dominant masculine culture. All things said, it is certain that the women who were situated at the apex of this all-female hierarchy would have been perceived by the men as most closely embodying the dominant masculine values. Indeed, this was so deeply entrenched in the women's psyche that they believed that this was the correct form of behaviour, and they punished other women ("they would give them heaps") for not acting in accordance with these conventions.


Hegemonic masculinity is about control and domination. Men who subscribe to this way of thinking have a strong desire to subordinate weaker men and women. Consequently, competition for power becomes a common practice. On the building site, this contest takes the shape of an activity referred to as one-upmanship. One-upmanship is the cultural practice whereby construction workers vie for status, recognition, and self-reassurance of their masculine attributes. This activity has to occur in a group because a person's peers need to acknowledge his achievements. If a worker makes a remark about his association to hegemonic masculinity and there is nobody around to acknowledge it, this action would not be as gratifying because he has no audience. An audience also ensures that the worker's status in his peer group will rise incrementally each time his accomplishments in the realm of being male are recognised. One-upmanship is also a crucial element of complicity in hegemonic masculinity. It operates as a mechanism that guarantees that the majority continues to subscribe to the values of the dominant male culture. In this section, I draw on my interviewees' experiences of one-upmanship to illustrate how it functions. I provide two common examples. The first excerpt is from an interview with a 37-year-old carpenter:
 David: Have you ever seen a worker lift up an object that is too
 heavy for him in order to show his friends that he's not a "wimp"?

 Toni: Yeah, I remember one time one guy lifted a bag of cement,
 and another guy said, "I'm stronger than you; I'll take two bags of
 cement," so he lifted two bags of cement.

 David: So they were competing with one another? So what happened
 in the end? They just kept on competing until they couldn't
 lift anymore?

 Toni: No, it's just a sort of a joke thing, you know? And you just
 sort of end it there. Just to prove who's stronger, I suppose,
 that's all it was.

Craig a 22-year-old carpenter recalls an incident where his boss felt an urge to demonstrate his physical strength and needed an audience to validate the experience:
 Craig: My last boss, he was a pretty big sort of a bloke. You know
 these six-meter beams--six-by-four beams--he had one of them;
 he was trying to get three; actually he had one of them on each
 shoulder, which, you know, you should have two blokes lifting
 them up.

 David: And how heavy would that be, three on your back, like how
 many kilograms in weight? Are we talking like 35 kilograms, 40?

 Craig: Probably, they're probably forty kilo each.... Yeah, he was
 lifting two of them, and he was going for his third he had, yeah.

 David: And were people watching him do it?

 Craig: Yeah, he gathered up a few people just to say, "Look at me
 do this." He got two up, and he didn't get three.

 David: What did the people say around him?

 Craig: Nothing, he was just called an idiot, didn't achieve him
 anything; he didn't get heroic status.

This example illustrates that construction workers need an audience to witness their acts of physical strength in order to validate their efforts. Possibly, Craig's boss may have not attempted to pick up three 40-kilogram beams had his peers not been in the vicinity. The following table is a summary of the various kinds of one-upmanship that take place on construction sites, as reported by my interviewees:

As can be seen, the type of one-upmanship that most frequently occurred involved contests of physical strength. This highlights the connection between OH&S and hegemonic masculinity. The interviewees recalled instances where people tussled for status by engaging in dangerous behaviour. In most cases, tradesmen attempted to demonstrate their manhood by outshining others by participating in impromptu contests of strength. My respondents reported that individuals who had no desire to partake in these competitions would be provoked by remarks such as, "Come on, what are you, a girl?" Most important, such games can have dangerous consequences. At this point, I will turn my attention to the nexus between hegemonic masculinity and OH&S.


The dominant masculine culture influences construction workers' attitudes towards OH&S. Hegemonic masculinity prescribes that men should be tough, dominate over others, and should not be afraid of danger. Consequently, this social environment is conducive to risk taking. In fact, in certain situations it is demanded of people. Two events I observed while I was working at the supermarket refurbishment constitute critical junctures (1) regarding the way masculinity relates to safety. Several weeks after I was stationed on this construction site, Joel and I were working in a barricaded area at the rear of the supermarket. Bill entered the enclosure and remarked, "Be careful when you lift that slab. I did my back in the other day doing a similar job." Joel then said, "That's because you're a 20-year-old pussy. Here, Dave, let's toss another concrete slab on the trolley" [the trolley was already holding two slabs]. In this case, Joel viewed Bill's preoccupation with safety as a quality of a subordinated gender construct (conventional femininity) and insulted him by bringing his association with the dominant masculine culture into question.

Two weeks later, Joel, Rob, and I were standing near the doorway of the office area. Rob began drilling a hole in the wall. The drill emitted a loud, high-pitched noise. I clasped my ears to muffle out the sound. Joel saw me and said, "Oh, come on, Dave. I can't believe that's too loud for you. What are you, a man or a mouse?" At this point, Rob said, "Has he put on his earmuffs again, Joel?" "No, he's holding his ears," he replied in an irritated tone. "That's because he's a pussy," said Rob. In this scenario, I was verbally reprimanded because I was concerned about damaging my hearing and took appropriate measures to protect it. In Joel's and Rob's opinions, I exhibited behaviour that was not fitting for a "true male." These kinds of scenarios take place in the building industry on a daily basis, and it is easy to see how tradesmen ensure that malcontents fall into line with the hegemonic masculine culture.

The tradesmen I interviewed also highlighted the connection between masculinity and OH&S. In many cases, men engaged in dangerous behaviour as a way of reinforcing their association with the dominant masculine culture. A 54-year-old carpenter recalled this incident:
 Alex: It happened that one chappie was balancing to walk across a
 frame, on the highest structural point that was about 12 feet in the
 air and he was sort of balancing around.

 David: So, he was walking on top of the frame?

 Alex: Which is only 90 mil wide.

 David: How high is that?

 Alex: Twelve feet in the air or 3,600 millimetres to four meters in
 the air.

 David: You're kidding me? He was walking on that?

 Alex: Well, they get pretty confident, but I always remind them,
 "Don't get too confident because you can have an accident."

 David: Did anyone say anything to him?

 Alex: Not really, you think he's stupid. You tell him just to be
 careful, take it easy; there's no need to do it. You don't say,
 "What are you doing up there, you...?"

 David: You didn't try to directly tell him off?

 Alex: You just advise him to do it another way rather than just
 walking across from one end of the room to the other on the top
 plate.... Unfortunately, with carpenters to do that is a sign of
 macho. To be able to stand up and walk on top plates, it can have
 devastating results.

This is an example of the health-related risks that some tradesmen take in the name of masculinity. In a second example, a 39-year-old boilermaker became highly concerned when one of his coworkers did something dangerous in an effort to be macho:
 David: Have you ever witnessed any cases where guys will do
 something dangerous on building sites in order to impress their

 Dave: Dangerous? Yeah, actually I did witness something once,
 and I wasn't very happy about it.... We were working at a Navy
 depot that had actually been decommissioned; we were demolishing
 it. It was sort of like a demolition/asbestos removal job. Yeah,
 we found some old, um ... compressed air, a bit like scuba tanks
 and um ... this particular gentleman said, "What's this?" And he
 belted the tap off the end of it, and it shot off the ground like a
 torpedo. I mean you could fit one hundred cubic foot of air in a
 small area, and of course it went across the ground like a torpedo
 and um ... he or anyone else didn't realise how far it would go and
 in fact how much damage it would cause. Luckily no one was injured.

The hegemonic masculine culture prescribes that men should engage in reckless behaviour with little regard for their own or others' well-being. In this case, a worker attempted to demonstrate his manhood and caused a tank of compressed air to shoot off like a rocket. This could have easily ended someone's life. In a second example, an on-site OH&S officer described an incident where a worker's demonstration of stature and physical prowess could have resulted in a fatality:
 Mark: I've seen bricks thrown from scaffolds at people's heads to
 show that they were tougher than the bloke down three flights

 David: So someone actually threw a brick off a scaffold three
 stories high?

 Mark: At the bloke, yeah.

 David: But they had a hardhat on, didn't they?

 Mark: No, it would have killed him if it had hit him.

 David: My god! For what reason?

 Mark: Because he parked his truck in a way that the other vehicle
 couldn't get off the site. But the whole object the next day of
 throwing the brick was to show himself to be better and tougher
 than the people he had the dispute with.

 David: Why are workers compelled to do these sort of things?

 Mark: A predominately male environment means that boys will be
 boys and the boys have got to show off to each other. It's an
 industry where we all try to beat each other in some fashion and so
 therefore a dangerous act can be seen by workers to be one way of
 showing that they're better than the next bloke. It's a way of
 producing a pecking order. Um ... dangerous acts of course include
 direct violence against others to show themselves to be better, so
 if I knock the bloke out, it's a dangerous act that shows me to be
 better than he.

Mark's comments indicate that he possesses an awareness of the gender hierarchy that exists on his construction site. Additionally, Mark's case is a perfect example of how notions of masculinity and safety intersect. The tradesman in question had been involved in a minor altercation with another man and, as prescribed by the dominant male culture, had to prove himself to be the superior and physically stronger male. He attempted to achieve this by dropping a brick on the other man's head.


In this article, I have contributed to the understanding of masculinity in industrial workplace settings. I argued that in the building industry there exists a particular variety of hegemonic masculinity. This force structures relationships between construction workers hierarchically and influences their perceptions of OH&S so that they are not overly concerned about their well-being. I began this article with a general overview of different forms of masculine behaviour found in these places of employment. This section has demonstrated that despite the politically incorrect nature of sexism, construction workers still possess attitudes akin to those found by LeMasters (1975) in the building industry around 30 years ago.

Next, I developed a picture of gender relations on building sites. I argued that the social interactions are ordered by the hegemonic masculine culture. In this construct, workers are encouraged to be strong, display heterosexual prowess, and objectify women. The prevailing ideology also dictates that men should be willing to engage in dangerous activities. The people who fared the best in these circumstances were the ones who most closely embodied the demeanour of the hegemonic culture. Those who were subordinated were seen by the majority to display qualities associated with "inferior" gender constructs. I also argued that the commanding masculine culture prescribes that men need to dominate weaker men and women. This scenario creates a condition where builders vie for status as exemplified in the section on one-upmanship. Through activities such as determining who can carry the heaviest wheelbarrow load, workers engage in dangerous activities in the name of masculinity.

Finally, I focused on the manner in which the hegemonic masculine culture influences construction workers' perceptions of OH&S. I drew on two examples from my fieldwork and many others from my interviews. In the first two cases, workers' membership to the dominant masculine culture was questioned when they refused to do something dangerous. In the excerpts from my interviews, tradesmen engaged in life-threatening activities to reinforce their masculinity and their location in the male hierarchy. Traditionally, incentives to improve OH&S standards have focused on company negligence. However, some focus needs to be placed on informal workplace cultures and how they shape perceptions of OH&S.
Table 1
A Summary of Different Types of One-Upmanship Based on Interviewees'

Types of one-upmanship No. of No. of
 interviewees interviewees
 who had seen who felt they
 these contests occurred
 at least once frequently

Frequency of sexual encounters 0 5
Demonstration of virility 1 0
Wages and job performance 4 0
Alcohol consumption capacity 0 2
Demonstrations of physical strength 4 6


(1.) A "critical juncture" is an event or a situation that provides an unprecedented understanding of a particular issue under investigation.


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Author:Iacuone, David
Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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