It is with gratitute to SHRM's HRMagazine for publishing my most recent article on Boys Clubs:
Boys Just Want to Have Fun
The term “boys’ club” refers to the unofficial and often impenetrable group of men—usually white men—in an organization or department who have effective control and power. Being part of or having access to the club often is critical to making the right connections to advance within the organization.
Because these groups often form covertly, and sometimes as a result of unconscious rather than conscious bias, the membership does not always correspond to the organizational chart. Moreover, top executives often deny the existence of an exclusionary club. I have never seen a “formal” boys’ club, yet I would be foolish to deny that it exists at some organizations.
When it comes to determining the scope of a boys’ club, official positions may be relevant but not determinative. I have seen organizations with gender equity at the top, but the real power is held by men. Conversely, I have also seen organizational charts where most power positions are held by those with Y chromosomes, but I didn’t think there was any gender bias in general or a boys’ club in particular.
Why are these clubs present in some companies? And how do we eradicate them?
I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts to help HR professionals move toward equal employment opportunity (EEO).
Bias in Your Backyard
Sex discrimination, including gender stereotyping, is illegal. More than that, it is bad business.
Ensuring gender equality is a business imperative in terms of attracting, retaining and advancing talent that goes beyond the legal imperative. We exclude women or any other group at our peril.
You may be thinking, “Of course. This is hardly news.”
Most executives outside of HR would agree. They understand the business drivers mandating diversity and inclusion.
Still, most do not see the bias in their backyards. Don’t assume that everyone understands the business costs of bias.
Why Boys’ Clubs Exist
There are many reasons an organization or a silo within may have a boys’ club.
The first is what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission calls “like-me” bias: the human tendency to be more comfortable with those who are like you.
“I don’t discriminate,” says the executive. But he socializes with, plays golf with and feels more comfortable among those who look like him.
Does this risk exist in an organization where women are in control? You bet. Executives in these organizations face the same risk of like-me bias to the detriment of those with Y chromosomes.
Boys’ clubs do not justify girls’ clubs, legally or morally. Power clubs that exclude men are also bad business.
Like-me bias is usually the product of unconscious affinity toward similarity. Sometimes, however, conscious considerations contribute to a boys’ club.
These considerations may be well-intentioned. We live in a painfully litigious world. One misstatement may later be used as evidence of bias, even if the statement was made out of awkwardness as opposed to malice.
In the “gotcha” world of employment litigation, leaders appropriately want to avoid saying the wrong thing. They sometimes inappropriately avoid people they fear may perceive their words in a negative light. But you can’t avoid bias claims by avoiding those who are different from you. That’s called bias.
There is more room for human error in a diverse group. While that may explain, in part, why some clubs exist, it does not justify their existence.
In addition, members of boys’ clubs often justify their activities as being primarily social. Work is hard and seems to be getting harder. In the 1970s, Spiral Starecase sang, “I love you more today than yesterday but not as much as tomorrow.” The theme song for today’s business world could be “I expect more from you today than yesterday but not as much as tomorrow.” So, when people work hard, they may want to play hard, too.
In mixed-gender groups, the sexist “joke” is more likely to be costly, and the appropriateness of going to strip clubs is more likely to be challenged.
So we move from the ’70s to the ’80s, when Cyndi Lauper sang “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Today, the boys who just want to have fun fear that the price tag may be too high if women are included in certain activities, so some don’t include them.
Dismantle Boys’ Clubs
Just so there is no confusion: Even in male groups, the sexist jokes are not funny and the strip clubs are offensive. There are many men—I am one of them—who say so, but fewer men than women will bring claims based on them.
There is no magic bullet to dismantling these clubs, but here are 10 recommendations for your consideration:
Some women will stay with your organization but opt out of the social events where inappropriate behaviors occur. Marginalized, these employees don’t realize their full potential. Worse, they may take their talent and outside relationships to a more inclusive employer. Inappropriate conduct may not be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, but it may create a boys’ club when women choose not to go along to get along, a choice no one should ever have to make.
The author, a partner with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, focuses on counseling, training and strategic planning to minimize litigation and unionization.