The Cost of BP's Boys' Club: Why the Oil Industry's Macho Culture Is Bad for Women and the Environment

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is being called -- with increasing justification -- one of the greatest ecological disasters in history. The term "human error" has been ubiquitous since the spill began, but it grants far too much leniency to a company and an industry that for years has operated with a certain arrogance and machismo that has contributed in no small way to the catastrophe. But don't take my word for it:  

Oil industry veteran Robert Cavnar wrote this month: "The industry I had chosen, though I loved it, was dominated by the macho myth of big iron, big rigs, wild wells, and wild men." In 2005, the journal Equal Opportunities International, published a study on oil industry lawsuits and settlements over discriminatory practices, which substantiated a negative perception about the industry being male-dominated and having a "macho" corporate culture. Even BP's former chief executive, Lord Browne, said his identity as a gay man forced him to live a secret life in the oil industry, which he said must qualify as the most macho of business worlds.  

We can begin to understand the tendency toward machismo in BP with simple numbers: all of BP's executives are white males, except for one female HR leader. Our research has shown this to be short-sighted. Countless studies have demonstrated that diversity in leadership produces better results overall. Women also tend to be more tempered risk-takers, which, among other things, could have shifted BP's decision not to use a safeguard device on the Deepwater rig, a potentially disaster-averting move that could have cost as little as $500,000.  

Calls for more diverse leadership are certainly being listened to in Washington, as the leaders dispatched to deal with the spill are largely female. They include U.S. Homeland Security's Janet Napolitano, Carol Browner, the assistant to the president for Energy and Climate Change, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson, who has organized aircraft in the area to gather information on air quality.  

When it comes to cleaning up messes -- especially of the macho variety -- women are a hot commodity these days. Last month's TIME Magazine cover story ("The New Sheriffs of Wall Street") highlighted the significance of women charged with managing regulation and oversight in the financial sector. The value of women leaders is finally gaining recognition but their inclusion in the Gulf may be too little too late, and the mess they're cleaning up holds dire consequences for other women.  

Women represent some of the most vulnerable communities impacted by the spill, both financially and physically. In times of emergency, it is the most vulnerable communities, particularly low-income households, frequently headed by single women, who risk the most in these kinds of emergencies.  

There are also particular risks to pregnant women. As Dr. Gina Solomon at the National Resources Defense Council points out, some volatile chemicals in oil have been linked to miscarriage, pre-term birth, and low birth weight. The risks aren't limited to pregnant women who come in direct contact with crude, but include thousands of other citizens who may be affected indirectly, since VOCs (volatile organic compounds) can be airborne.  

Despite these very real threats to reproductive and fetal health, there has been no effort thus far to address them in the wake of the spill. What's more, we're unable to measure the potential danger of oil and VOCs, since, according to Solomon, even BP doesn't know all of their ingredients because the manufacturer deems them proprietary ingredients, meaning that "the public has no access to the full ingredients lists of these products, or any ability to independently verify their safety."  

Women and children are endangered by a threat that can't be measured, in a crisis that the world's greatest experts are unable to stop.  

Taking these factors into account is not only necessary to gauge an accurate measure of the spill's human cost, but also requires us to change our attitudes and actions on energy policy. It isn't that an additional X-chromosome would have necessarily stopped this disaster -- Sarah Palin is the current face of drill-happy oil culture -- but as we examine the consequences of this historic crisis, so must we also question the decisions, attitudes, and cultures that got us here.  

Confidence, strength and risk-taking are admirable qualities, but when confidence turns into arrogance and risk-taking becomes a kind of Russian roulette with human life and our larger ecosystem, we've got to ask more of BP than bravado and paternal assurances that they will "do the right thing."   

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