Language matters. When a society internalizes phrases over time, the attitudes underlying those words become part of the culture.
This is what’s happened with the term “boys will be boys.” It’s become a get-out-of-jail-free card for men’s unacceptable behavior, from young boys at home and in school to college-age adults and men in the workplace.
What does “boys will be boys” mean?
According to the Collins online dictionary, “If you say ‘boys will be boys,’ for example when a group of men are behaving noisily or aggressively, you are suggesting in a light-hearted way that this is typical male behaviour and will never change.”
The problem is that the attitude dismisses accountability for behavior, which may be more than simply noisy or aggressive. It validates male entitlement, often excusing discriminatory and even criminal actions against girls and women.
How does the dismissive attitude impact boys?
Diversity and inclusion psychologist Lauran Star tells InHerSight that both “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls” are statements that provide a foundation of gender-focused unconscious biases and poor behavior. Any time a comment puts someone in a box, she explains, “it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy or a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card.”
In addition to providing an excuse for bad behavior, Star adds, the “boys will be boys” perspective is a missed opportunity to see and address an underlying issue.
How does it impact men?
By the time boys are men in the workforce, they’ve had years of reinforcement of the “boys will be boys” social construct. It’s no wonder, Star notes, that we have unacceptable behavior in the workplace.
And as we’ve all seen, this reaches the very top. In the University of Cambridge student newspaper Varsity, Helena DG gives the never-to-be-forgotten example of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump demeaning women by saying to "grab 'em by the pussy." What may have been even worse is that “his wife, Melania, justified his behaviour by insisting that his remarks are to be dismissed as ‘boy talk,’ calling on the entrenched rhetoric of ‘boys will be boys,’” she writes.
Read more: 50 Memes for “Raging” Feminists
What the “boys will be boys” attitude says about a company’s culture
We asked career change coach Lisa Lewis Miller what happens when a workplace culture allows a boys’ club mentality. She tells InHerSight that "companies that are permissive of ‘boys will be boys’ as an attitude, excuse, or justification for workplace behaviors are a small step away from victim-blaming and other sexist, biased behaviors.”
This was perfectly demonstrated when a “boys will be boys” culture flourished into criminal sexual and predatory acts at Miramax and The Weinstein Company, both co-owned by Harvey Weinstein. It’s not a one-off, though, with men in politics, finance, and media also finally facing the consequence of their sexist, misogynistic, and abusive behaviors.
For example, the same culture existed at Sony Music Australia for decades until multiple complaints including “allegations of sexual harassment at work events, intimidating behaviour, alcohol abuse and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace” were finally acted on, reports Kelly Burke at The Guardian.
The behavior allowed by CEO Denis Handlin (who has since been removed by Sony head office in New York) was described as that of a “boys’ club environment,” with employees who wanted to file official complaints discouraged because they’d likely find themselves out of a job. The environment perpetuated itself through corporate hiring practices according to a former Sony employee who said: “They hire young people [who] walk into that culture and think that’s normal because it’s all they’ve ever known.”
Shielding boys and men from consequences of their actions and normalizing aggressive sexual behavior in certain industries (or by the rich, powerful, or famous) glamorizes and allows the violence to continue. Even the way you talk about it makes a difference.
Former chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center Kristen Houser put it this way: “When you talk about a culture of ‘bad boy’ behavior and sexual conquests, it sanitizes the prevalence of abusive experiences in the music industry.”
Job applicants can protect themselves by seeing beyond the glamor, says Miller. “If you see reviews of a company online—or speak to current employees—and hear even a mention of this kind of bro culture attitude, consider how much grit it would take to try to survive in that kind of environment for weeks on end, much less thrive.”
She counsels job seekers to bypass workplaces like that altogether: “There are so many companies out there that create thoughtful, inclusive cultures that you are probably better off applying to jobs elsewhere.”
How do we shift our expectations of men?
If boys aren’t taught equality, respect, and empathy when they’re young, they may well become men attracted to environments that allow the “boys will be boys” culture to live. Society has been and can continue to change that behavior and fight those cultural norms by protesting en masse and publicly exposing abuse with actions like the #MeToo movement.
In a 2017 conversation with Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, actor Meryl Streep calls the momentum created by women “absolutely thrilling,... a door that will not be closed. It will be very difficult for people to conduct their lives the way they have in the past. 'Oh that's just locker room talk,' 'Oh that's just the way men are,' no. It's not. We're civilised people, and we learn from our mistakes."
However, pressure must be exerted by the companies themselves too, as with Sony’s better-late-than-never removal of its Australian CEO. And it’s in the best interest of any organization to do so, because ultimately a toxic company culture “almost certainly guarantees failure,” writes Betsy Blumenthal, senior managing director at advisory firm Kroll Associates.
“Unlike more quantifiable organizational risks—like poor financial performance—bad culture is generally insidious,” Blumenthal explains. “It lies undetected in financial statements and public records, and then reveals itself without warning in the form of sexual harassment, high employee turnover, workplace bullying, illicit sales tactics, and other reputation- and value-destroying behaviors.
“That is why executives and boards of directors charged with ensuring the long-term health of their companies can’t afford to ignore the current—and long overdue—conversation on corporate culture,” she says.
About our sources
Lauran Star, Ph.D., is a bestselling author and leading authority on generational diversity and inclusion in organizations, delivering a customized, edge-of-your-seat keynotes and workshops that offer tangible answers and compel immediate action.
With over a decade of leadership development experience with Fortune 100 and other top companies, Lauran is also a university professor and in-house corporate trainer and has been featured in major media such as CBS Radio Forbes Women and Huffington Post. A former Broadway performer and medic with the United States Army, Lauran holds a doctorate in Industrial and Organizational Psychology with a specialization in Diversity, Inclusion and Change.
Lisa Lewis Miller is a career change coach who helps unfulfilled individuals find careers that light them up. She's helped more than 500 people make transitions, and is the host of The Career Clarity Show on Apple Podcasts.