When I first started my career, I worked in an office that was largely influenced by men and their ideas. In fact, inequality was so ingrained in our culture that you would never know that there were seven women for every three men in our office. The same is true for many workplaces across the country. In 2016, the Department of Labor reported that women make up almost half of the United States labor force. Still, we are largely devalued in spaces that favor male employees.
You can imagine how discouraging this was for a 19-year-old young woman juggling work and school and now…a boys' club. Day in and day out, I had to facilitate systems that were no longer working, promote ideas that weren’t my own, and explain away nonsensical decisions all because the men on our team came up with them. What’s more, they established exclusive ties outside work that made it harder for everyone to be heard equally. It was a frustrating experience, to say the least.
But I learned that the boys' club is not just about a male-dominated staff. In fact, the boys' club is a system that amplifies the voices of men….even when women consume more space. And sometimes, that boys' club persists even when there are no boys.
Even after the head of our office (a male) was terminated and the only remaining men in the office resigned, the boy’s club mentality remained. Instead of vetoing the boys' club that had existed for far too long, the women of our office followed suit. They developed personal bonds that seeped into the office, practiced favoritism, and upheld the rigid ideas of our prior male counterparts.
Truthfully, this happens to many women in many workplaces. You or someone you know may be trying to break the same cycles at your job. As someone who’s been through it, I can attest to three simple yet effective ways to overcome the boys' club mentality (even if there are no boys).
1. Ask questions
At my former job, we often did things “just because.” When I would ask why we were still offering services that were ineffective or hosting events that were poorly attended, I received generic responses about doing things the way we had in the past. The problem was that, in the past, our office had been run by men, and although the demographic was now different, the dynamic was not. You can overcome the boys' club by questioning the things that don’t make sense. Don’t be afraid to challenge the old ways of doing things, even if it makes some people uncomfortable. Whether you work in a boys' club or are surrounded by women who uphold the boys' club, you have a right to speak your mind.
2. Support mentorship
The women in my office had each worked there for at least five years. Yet, they’d never made any palpable efforts to shift the culture for the women who came after them. That experience empowered me to support new female associates through mentorship. You can take a similar approach. Encourage the senior members of your organization to mentor entry-level associates. Pitch the idea of a women’s mentorship program to management. Promote equity and diversity initiatives that help to make your work environment more inclusive.
3. Be yourself
Most women feel like trying to fit in with the boys' club is better than being excluded. While this may be the easier option, it’s not necessarily the more effective one. The boys' club is reinforced by social clubs, fraternities, and other networks that exclude not only women, but people of color as well. As a young black woman, being myself in a space that had never traditionally embraced me was a game-changer. I maintained my sense of professionalism without giving up the ideas, values, and preferences that made me…. me. The next time you hold your tongue on an important issue at work, remember that your input could help establish a new culture that embraces men and women equally.
The boys' club is an outdated system that diminishes the value that women bring to the workforce. Although this age-old system will not change overnight, there are measures that you can take to eradicate it. Ask the tough questions, champion other women through mentorship, and stay true to yourself. These simple steps will not only help to attract more diverse talent pools but eventually, create a more inclusive, gender-balanced work culture.