When facing the often seemingly insurmountable issues of ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘men’s behaviour change’, ‘male culture’ and any other buzzwords one wishes to describe this with, it can feel like we are; spitting on a bush-fire. All that ends up happening is we as an individual become dehydrated, exhausted and ultimately defeated. However, when we are united with a group (however small) our chances increase ever so slightly that even if we don’t put the blaze out, we will at least have a support network to ensure we ourselves do not get consumed by the flames.
[Please always remember to engage with your support network, it is humanity’s and so your, greatest strength. You can’t do this alone, but we can do this together.]
In the field of Occupational Health & Safety, we utilize a lot of effective analytical processes such as; hazard identification, risk management and root cause mapping. However, all of these are “Paper Tigers” if not driven by strong leadership and commitment to their values. It is through this process I have experienced the genuine capacity for male consciousness to shift its values and engage with processes it previously shunned.
In this way, male consciousness is a raw, untapped resource for genuine change waiting to be utilized. Now this isn’t necessarily new information, especially to those currently engaging with male cultures in such ways. Instead I thought I would provide a very real world account of just how effective and powerful this force can be if it’s harnessed right, with love.
Mid 2014 I was working on a large scale, multiple high-rise commercial construction project in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. At the time I was working as a carpenter installing timber flooring, but more importantly had begun experimenting with wearing very vibrant tie-dye bandanas along with the general construction worker garb. Initially this was done more out of self-care and invitation language for myself to find a way to keep a little of my own identity to combat the struggle of conformity that exists with the very male-dominated construction culture. It wasn’t long however, before this simple act began igniting significant attention and usually never positive.
Intrigued by the initial (let’s call them “rich”) responses to a simple coloured piece of cloth I decided to actively engage with and test these responses, if for at first no other reason than to liven an otherwise dreary and monotonous work life. What I begin to find was that behind the taunts there was a genuine want for deep discussion, but the welling up of that want and the not knowing how to handle such a feeling was what was fuelling the taunts.
Now hooked, I was determined to “lean into the sword” to get closer to this internal struggle of male consciousness. I had stumbled across a highly effective insecurity trigger and was now learning how to use it for good, as too often that power is abused for devious wants.
To set the scene, picture the construction site elevators we have all seen at some point. The large steel boxes whizzing up and down a track on the outside of a tall building (in Melbourne they are often bright orange). These machines are used to transport material and workers up and down the buildings and as such become impromptu ‘watering hole’ for workers on site. There is often always a line awaiting the next ‘run’ and the carriages themselves are used jammed packed with worker and or materials to make the ‘runs’ as efficient as possible.
On particularly tall projects, these ‘runs’ can take several minutes or more depending on stops in between. This leaves a random cross-section of workers locked into very tight quarters for awkward periods of time (essentially the construction equivalent to standard elevator scenarios the world over). The difference on a construction site, is that these elevators are driven by a specifically assigned worker. These drivers are often older in age, as it is a great position for an aging worker to hold (though not always a given). Regardless of age, these drivers tend to become very territorial and protective of their perceived 2m x 6m ‘kingdom’.
As a result, the dynamic inside these elevators is very much whatever the driver wants it to be for the time you are there. A worker’s relationship with their driver is one of the most intentionally cultivated ones on any construction site. If he doesn’t like you, you’re going to waiting awhile to get your ‘run’ in.
On the day and site in question I experienced the following sequence of events;
- Standing awaiting on the 2nd level for the ascending elevator. A few awkward workers standing unusually further away from me, who at times I caught glancing at my bandana with concerning expressions.
- The elevator arrives, doors open, there are a small handful of workers already inside. I pause as the stares from within the elevator lock on to the bandana. In the awkward moment I motion to my fellow waiting workers to enter the elevator ahead of me, as I would be getting off a few floors before them.
- The elevator fills with remaining workers and we all awkwardly shuffle closer together like nervous penguins. I reach back and close the gates and door (note in this elevator the controls are located at the back of the carriage and so it is customary for the last worker in to close the gates behind them, as the driver is now barricaded in his position and unable to reach).
- That gates lock shut and then, nothing (normally, as soon as the gates lock the elevator takes off. A construction site is a busy place where no one has time to waste). On this occasion, nothing.
- Immediately aware of the uncommon lack of motion, the workers all now awkward glance amongst each other, shooting signals of concern. I too am similarly looking around my fellow workers and then I see him. The driver.
- The driver’s steely, unblinking eyes are locked on me. His gaze pierces the awkward silence as the other workers become aware of it also. The awkward silence as now turned to a uncomfortable, tense feeling of entrapment.
- After a long pause amongst the deafening silence, the driver utters:
“That’s a nice bandana mate. You get that from Sydney?”
- The mood instantly shifts to ice-cold terror amongst the workers, they are certain they are about to witness something they don’t want to be apart of, but now can’t escape (for context; the barb about Sydney is a direct reference to the well-known and long-standing, annual Sydney LGBTQ Mardi Gras). This gentleman is seething at his assumption my tie-dye bandana is a LGBTQ pride statement, in HIS kingdom and he is not having it!
Moments like these are the moments we can harness to enact genuine change, moments that all to often we let pass us by for fear of taking a step off the ‘social convention’ ledge. But it is now, more than ever, that we understand the power these moments have and more importantly the responsibility that befalls us to act in such moments, not out of self-vindication but out of our own individual duty to humanity.
This is when we each must step-up (if only for a moment) and become a true champion of change.
Using my then gathered knowledge of male insecurity and its behaviour, I ceased the moment to test all my theories and see if this could work.
The sequence of events concluded as such:
- Using humour to first blunt the driver’s barb I replied;
“Nah mate. But my boyfriend did. Thanks for asking mate.”
- Instantly the collection of workers began to giggle at the gutsy yet witty comeback (that one was for them). The mood instantly lifted, but only slightly.
- The driver confused at first by such an unexpected retort had become flustered and now was about to slip into humiliated fury. The situation had not yet resolved, it could potentially escalate now and we all at that time still knew that.
- I, again “leaning into the sword” and exercising my duty for change, continued with;
“But mate I don’t think that’s the question on hand. The real question is what is it about such a simple bandana that made you feel so uncomfortable that you felt it necessary to publicly attack me in front of all the boys like that?”
- And then the true beauty of men showed itself. All in unison and without a word between them, the collection of workers all turned to the driven and began expressing concern for me and how;
“that really wasn’t cool mate”
“ease up mate, Ian’s a good bloke”,
- It is worth pointing out that these responses weren’t aggressive towards the driver, but rather in empathetic defence of myself.
- The next and final occurrence, still to this day amazes me. The driver paused, glancing downward in clear immediate contemplation and self-reflection, looks up and says;
“S#!t Ian. I’m sorry mate. I didn’t really mean anything about that. In fact, I don’t really know why I even said it. I think that was more my father coming out of me than anything. The bastard always hated <insert derogatory Aussie slang word for homosexuals>.”
In each step of that scenario there were chances to nudge things to this outcome. Chances to affect genuine change. Most of all at the end, where the driver completely opened up, fast and deep once I had pushed through the superficial culturally conditioned outer crust that most male develop (to each their own thickness of course). Catching him and the surrounding workers with hands of genuine love and empathy for them being humans of conditioning, whilst at the same time holding a firm line of what is and isn't acceptable behaviour, instantly flipped that male-dominating pack mentality into a force for good.
I cannot encourage people more to begin similar discovery and experimentation within yourselves, immediate community and the wider community. Tread carefully but tread confidently.
The driver and I are still industry friends to this day, he has come to mean numerous times since with self-reflection epiphanies about his experience with cultural conditioning and how to go about addressing it. He still tells me to this day, that one moment in that elevator all those years ago turned his life around and probably saved his marriage and relationship with his kids.
That is the power of a champion of change. A power we all have at any given moment of any given day.
Every pebble dropped in the pond of male consciousness at just the right time can, and does result in far reaching, permanent change.
Ian Welsh can be contacted at his LinkedIn page.