What happens when you infantilise the workers in a hyper-masculine workplace like a professional British rugby league club? Loughborough University’s (UK) Professor Christine Coupland discussed just that as a guest of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing’s Seminar Series on Monday (30 November, 2015).

Approached by the club’s director with a broad brief of reporting what it was like for employees to work there, Christine conducted interviews with players; support staff — business managers, administrators; directors; football staff — coaches, psychologists, physiotherapists; and fans. As she began to analyse what people were saying however, Professor Coupland was confronted with the pervasive use of age-related labels to describe the various states of the relationships between employees, fans and the executive:

“When the coach described the teams he referenced them by age categories: the ‘scholarships’ are the 15 and 16 years olds — the ‘babies’; the 18 to 20 years olds — the ‘littlies’; and then the ‘biggies’ [A-grade players]….In a completely masculine environment, age was the differentiating factor…Age masculinity gave [the interviewee] a certain kind of control…”, explains Christine.

The child-like labelling was one part of infantilising this workforce; another considered the discipline styles employed by the club:

“Taking care of [the players] or being there when things go wrong, dealing with them like they’re four year olds, being at the end of the phone in the middle of night or pulling them back into line is some of the discourse that emerged from the interviews [from both players and the football staff. The latter] are dealing with them as children, not adults with some kind of agency. But this relationship is also consumed the players — they are told how to behave in this environment and [they subsequently] put on their ‘game face’ for the coach,” adds Christine. “Age and gender are being organised in this social environment to meet the needs of the organisation.”

A consequence of this infantilisation says Professor Coupland, is a hyper-masculine workforce rendered potentially docile – one that is not making plans, or providing resources for, players’ retirement; one that emphasises physical and psychological wellbeing only to better performance; and one that produces modes of masculinity which are dependent upon age labels.

In concluding, Christine suggests that a critical analysis of the interviews:

“…offers a useful method to interrogate age and gender as forms of social practice [- employment in a football club in this case -] which naturalises and sustains relations in power….Here, masculinities are organised in part by using age labels which can also socially de-authorise members of certain groups…While a ‘senior’ player is not necessarily old — they are the ‘game players’ who have the greatest impact on the pitch — it is the role of age as the differentiating factor in a completely masculine environment [that has stood out].”

Contact the Centre Manager for a copy of Professor Coupland’s PowerPoint presentation: [email protected].

WOW Higher Degree Research student member, Carolina Bouten-Pinto offers her take on Christine’s seminar via LinkedIn’s Pulse blog. Check it out too!