The “boys’ club” feels like a problem of the past, but it’s actually more common than you might think. About 54 percent of women say they’ve worked at a company with a boys’ club culture, or one that excludes women and minorities from decision-making, social events, and other opportunities to have their voices heard and their careers advanced. Companies with boys’ clubs are often dominated by men (but not always) or have mostly male leadership, and their communication styles are secretive. Think of the small marketing team in Mad Men sipping bourbon at 10 a.m. in Don Draper's office while the rest of the company, mostly women in their case, carries on with their workdays in the room beyond. That’s a boys’ club.
Of course, at a time like this, it’s highly unlikely your coworkers are starting their mornings together over a glass of bourbon. Working from home en masse means boys’ club trademarks such as golf outings and business lunches are, thankfully, off the table. Yet, even in a pandemic, exclusion finds ways to thrive. People from marginalized groups can still be left off meeting invites, asked to do menial tasks, talked over in meetings, or passed over for new projects and promotions while remote.
InHerSight asked women whether they’ve experienced indicators of exclusion since the pandemic began. The results were fairly split. Of the respondents working remotely*:
37 percent do not feel they have the same access to new projects and opportunities since working from home
44 percent say they’ve experienced an increase in communication lapses
28 percent have been excluded from projects or decisions they otherwise would have been a part of
16 percent are unsure whether they’ve been excluded from projects or decisions they otherwise would have been a part of
“It’s an age-old structure, the boys’ club, in tech and in other organizations,” says Marjorie Kalomeris, a former LinkedIn recruiter and founder of MK Career Coaching. She doesn’t expect exclusionary cultures to change overnight, but, she caveats, there’s a difference between intention and impact. “I don’t think there’s bad intent behind a lot of this. I think it’s something that happens naturally, which is why we need to actively ensure people aren’t actively excluded or intentionally excluded.”
Here are five big-picture ways to eliminate exclusionary practices while working from home and give women (and everyone) a virtual seat at the table:
Open up communication
“When [employees say] they’re experiencing communication lapses, it means the communication strategy of the organization isn’t fully aligned,” Kalomeris says. “It signals that silos are forming.”
Silos, as Kalomeris calls them, are communication pockets within an organization. They’re either structural (such as teams within a company), or cultural, meaning your day-to-day communication style. “Is everything pretty open on a forum like Slack or is it an email-only culture?” she says.
While having a more closed-off communication style isn’t necessarily bad, it’s not conducive to inclusivity or positive employee morale in a chaotic time. “In the absence of information, we make up stories because we like things to be complete,” says Deborah Riegel, a keynote speaker and consultant who teaches leadership communication for Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. “And nobody, especially in times like these, is making up a happy story when there’s lack of communication.”
Kalomeris suggests opening up new channels for feedback, such as opportunities to ask anonymous questions or holding open discussion forums. “A good way to break those down right now would be to really invest in ERGs, employee resource groups,” she says. “I think that’s a great way to have a different kind of conversation and keep people connected in a way that is about work and inclusion in the workplace but is not directly related to work. That’s something that can really connect people across different departments and different functions.”
Rethink ‘the meeting after the meeting’
The meeting after the meeting is a relatively well-known phenomenon. After a larger team or group meeting, a subset breaks off. That smaller get-together is often where the real decisions, decisions about strategy, are made. “‘The meeting after the meeting’ is such a real thing, and it will continue to be while we’re working virtually,” Kalomeris says. “I’ve seen it in action. You just hop on another Zoom right after that meeting.”
It’s only natural that small meetings feel necessary right now. For many organizations, there are a lot of difficult and emotional decisions to be made. But the lack of transparency in meeting-after-the-meeting cultures risks edging out diverse perspectives. Colleen Ammerman, the director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, wrote for the Harvard Business Review in May: “With pressure to make decisions as efficiently as possible, taking the time to ask whose voice needs to be heard could feel like a luxury. Your impulse might be to huddle with smaller groups but this instinct will not serve you well. You’re likely to find yourself looking at a gallery of faces very similar to your own—those you feel most comfortable with.”
“I’ve seen organizations that are pretty afraid of conflict and afraid of questions and questioning leaders,” Kalomeris says, returning to the need for companies to welcome dialogue and candid feedback. “I think it really takes a super strong leadership and one that’s not afraid of being open [or of] conflict.”
Divvy up the maintenance tasks
Maintenance tasks are administrative duties—or what one might call the “housework” of an office. Joan Williams, a law professor and co-author of What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, says that in her interviews with women for the book, “I heard stories about what I call office housework: the administrative tasks, menial jobs, and undervalued assignments women are disproportionately given at their jobs. They were expected to plan parties, order food, take notes in meetings, and join thankless committees at far greater rates than their male peers were.”
When working from home, those tasks look only slightly different: Note-taking sticks around, but we add sending meeting invitations and recording video calls, among other tasks. Riegel says using up women’s work time this way is worrisome because maintenance tasks are non-promotable: “They are things that benefit the team, the group, or the organization, but ultimately don’t lead to women being promoted.”
Maintenance tasks aren’t challenging, but they are time-consuming. “Over time, it has significant consequences for women,” Riegel says. “If you are using your time to handle work that doesn’t have visibility, doesn’t have impact, isn’t going to show up in a performance review, it means you have less time to demonstrate things that show your leadership skills and have business results.”
Instead, rotate who on the team does what, and work to recognize women’s business achievements. “One of the questions every manager should ask a direct report regardless of gender is, ‘How do you like to be recognized?’” Riegel says. “Publicly, privately, what would be best for you.”
Invite and applaud self-advocacy
Accessibility to new projects and opportunities is a career barrier for all people from marginalized groups, and the risk of them being overlooked while remote is much higher. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Both Kalomeris and Riegel say one of the best ways to champion accessibility for all is to make self-advocacy part of your regular 1:1s: “I would start with an invitation,” Riegel says.
I’m going to do my very best to support you, and I can’t know everything that will be important to you. I would appreciate and welcome it if you would speak up when you have a want or a need that I haven’t identified.
This is, in Riegel speak, “rolling out the red carpet” and an indication of your possible blind spots as a manager. For women, who are less likely to advocate for themselves, Riegel says such openness is key. “Be a little vulnerable because you’re asking her to be vulnerable as well.”
In terms of an invitation, Kalomeris likes this wording: Is anything else on your radar you weren’t thinking about before? because it encourages employees to look beyond their current job duties, maybe across the entire organization, at side-hustles, or at online learning opportunities. “It’s such a year of change,” Kalomeris says. “It’s time to reevaluate our career goals, everything. I think for a lot of people that were on a specific track or thought they were going one way with their career, it’s a perfect time to pivot.”
Your follow-up is equally important. Positively reinforce, without overpromising, when employees ask for something they want:
Thank you so much for asking. That never would have occurred to me. I don’t know why I didn’t think about that.
Be prepared to give a well thought out explanation for whatever decision you make, whether it’s yes, no, or a counteroffer. “It’s like when you took a math test as a kid, and you got partial credit for the answer and the rest of the credit for showing your work,” Riegel says. “Let her into your thinking process. That really builds relationships and lets her know she was included in the decision.”
Then ask for that honest feedback again: How do you feel about how I considered your approach? What would you want other people to know?
Be careful of comments
If your team uses video calls often, you’ve likely started to chat about employees’ backgrounds, outfits, kids, or other more personal topics. While such small talk can be a way of staying connected, it can quickly become a pain point if not done tactfully.
“People make comments, and they are usually very well-intended. It’s intended to be light, it’s intended to be informal, but you don’t know what the person on the other end is experiencing,” Riegel says. “Unless you would be willing to comment, ‘It looks like you got the COVID 15,’ don’t tease somebody about their background or being gray around the ears.
Riegel says for women in particular, the added effort it takes to appear on screen needs to be understood. Many women feel pressured to wear makeup and do their hair when remote in order to appear “professional.” That’s a problem men don’t face. Likewise, Black people, for instance, may have changed their hairstyles due to business closures (or simply preference) during the pandemic; even a compliment like, I love your hair like that, might make someone feel called out.
“That kind of small talk can come across as microaggressions against somebody’s class, somebody’s race, somebody’s gender,” Riegel says. “I think over video and in these virtual environments, we need to be twice as kind, twice as careful, and twice as caring.”
About our sources
Marjorie Kalomeris is a tech recruiter and a career coach for women of color. She spent the first six years of her career in recruiting at LinkedIn and has hired hundreds of people to work in tech. She now works for an Andreessen-Horowitz–backed Series D scaleup in Amsterdam called Optimizely. She also has her own coaching side-hustle called MK Career Coaching.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a keynote speaker and consultant who teaches leadership communication for Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. She is a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review, Inc., Psychology Today, Forbes, and Fast Company. The author of Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School, and Life, she consults and speaks for clients including Amazon, BlackRock, KraftHeinz, and The United States Army. Her work has been featured in worldwide media, including Bloomberg Businessweek, Oprah Magazine, and The New York Times.
*InHerSight's survey results include responses from remote and non-remote employees. To provide specific insights in this article on how to support women working from home, we've removed responses from non-remote employees. The original data is available in the results featured at the top of the page.