Meredith Boe is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She regularly writes articles about working women and self-employment, in addition to literary criticism, poetry, and creative prose.
Working women know the drill by now. No matter how many presentations we give or after-hours days we put in, we’ll never be quite part of the boys’ club, aka the men-only, elite social circles that dominate offices across industries.
That’s an issue because, aside from the social benefits of getting after-work drinks or teeing off with six of our closest office chums, some of the biggest draws of workplace boys’ clubs are their networking and mentoring opportunities. In order to reach executive-level positions, women need chances to communicate and bond with people who are also climbing the corporate ladder or are already at the top.
So, how can women work with that reality? Should we try to fit in with the ol’ boys’ club at work in order to reap the career benefits? Or should we try to stand out, setting a new example of what success looks like?
The debate has been around for decades. Let’s consider both sides of the argument.
The Argument for Fitting In
Joining the boys’ club may be the only way to understand it. And understanding it is necessary to conquer it. Boys’ clubs still exist because no one has stopped them. If women start joining these groups and shaking things up, the traditional boys’ club will flat-out not exist.
The immediate benefits of fitting in with the boys’ club at work are things like:
Respect from peers
Raises and promotions
Potential for a long-term leadership role
It’s no wonder women will watch a football game or two just to have something to talk about with their male coworkers. (We’re talking stereotypes here. We know some women actually like sports and some men don’t.)
But herein lies the problem with this method. To join the boys’ club, women are expected to act like men. They’re expected to care about sports, drink like a man, and project the “bravado” typically displayed by males in boys’ club atmospheres.
Although that could be fun for a while, “fitting in” also eliminates a valuable asset in our workforce: the voices and leadership styles of women.
Research has shown that women’s existence in the workplace actually makes offices better, more profitable places to work. The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study that showed higher percentage of females in an organization meant more job satisfaction, more organizational dedication, more meaningful work, and less burnout. These positive outcomes were true for both men and women.
Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) research says the presence of women in corporate leadership roles improves overall firm performance. And MSCI research shows having at least three women on a corporate board improves financial performance.
So, why would including females make such a difference? Because a diverse office is a more successful office. Differing opinions, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives are what keep companies adapting and improving.
Fitting in isn’t about going to work and trying to be like a man. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not every day.
Instead, we can exhibit confidence and show we’re not intimidated to speak in a room full of men—our opinions matter. Or we can say “no” to unreasonable or insulting asks. We might have to do a bit of extra homework to prove our expertise, but it will pay off in the end, for both our careers and our organizations.
You can impress and infiltrate the boys’ club by being yourself. What a thought.
The Argument for Standing Out
Instead of trying to join the boys’ club, what if you started something completely different? Women’s mentoring organizations and communities are on the rise because we’re finally talking about how lacking these opportunities are for women. Young working females can find these opportunities elsewhere, whether online or in their local communities, that they’re missing out on because of their workplace boys’ club.
The benefits of standing out are things like:
Not pretending to care about what men like
Not having to prove yourself all the time
Creating new traditions that include a woman’s perspective
Changing the trajectory of what success looks like
Founding inspiring companies or projects
But the potential cons of going this route are missing out on promotions, raises, and networking opportunities that boys’ clubs encourage. Standing out is also probably the harder option because the results may take a lot longer to come to fruition.
Plus, the boys in the boys’ clubs will be much less aware of the exclusive culture they’ve created if they’re just ignored.
Which is a better strategy?
Because of the immediate benefits of fitting in with the boys’ club, it may be the better option for female leaders. Going this route also acknowledges that:
1) We shouldn’t always assume that male coworkers are the enemy. (They aren’t!)
2) The goal is to infiltrate and change the boys’ club for the better, making it an equal playing field.
This doesn’t mean that women can’t stand out and shift the culture of the boys’ club. Instead of fitting in to the already existing culture, women should create a new culture that defines what leadership looks like, while using the traditional boys’ club practices to their advantage.
Once women are in, ways to shift the boys’ club culture are:
Creating new traditions that are inclusive of everyone in the office (here are 20-plus alternatives to your typical activities)
Exhibiting a balanced communication style that reflects who you’d be as a leader: being firm and assertive, but also empathic and never aggressive, for example
Bringing in more young women for mentorship opportunities
Starting female-only communities within elite social circles
Providing seminars and learning opportunities to educate your office about the importance of diversity and inclusion
It’s been a long time coming for females and males to dictate how workplaces are run. As our workforce diversifies, traditions will need to continue to change to welcome new ideas and perspectives.