The first session I went to at the WAM conference on Saturday afternoon was a panel discussion, chaired by the sublime Ann Friedman of Feministing, on women journalists confronting the “old boy’s network.” There weren’t many men in the session, but during the Q&A portion of the workshop, one young man asked an excellent question of the panelists: “What can male feminists do, especially those in the media, to confront the Old Boy’s Network?” It was a variation on the classic question that all well-intentioned men in the feminist movement ought to ask: “What is the most helpful thing I — as a man — can do?” The panelists gave some excellent answers about supporting female colleagues and introducing feminist themes into one’s own writing, but they left out, understandably, what I see as the single most important thing that any feminist man in a male-dominated field can do.
After the session, I went up to the young man and introduced myself. He’s Derek Warwick, an undergraduate women’s studies major from the University of Alberta in Edmonton (where my father taught, many years ago). Derek blogs at DoingFeminism. (I’ve been saying his name in my head, trying not to confuse him with the poet Derek Walcott.) I told Derek how delighted I was he asked the question, and told him that I hoped he would forgive the presumptuousness, but as an older male feminist, I thought there was one thing he really needed to hear in answer to his excellent query.
Male feminists must support women, of course. In the journalism world (which was the arena up for discussion on Saturday), that means standing in solidarity with women colleagues and fighting for the inclusion of feminist perspectives in all aspects of reporting. But I’m convinced that the single most important thing that feminist men can do to dismantle the Old Boys’ Network is both far more simple and far more difficult: refuse to join it.
Particularly for young white men working for older white men, the pressure to join the the Network can be both immense and subtle. All of us, as we age and climb whatever ladder it is we are climbing, look to mentor younger folks. The desire for a protege is a common one, and the classic model in the Network is for an older man to look for a younger version of himself — which in journalism, or academia, or law, may mean a middle or upper-middle class white guy in his twenties. Even those male supervisors who are ideologically sympathetic to feminism may find themselves more likely to support and nurture a young man with whom they feel that emotional affinity, that sense of themselves at a younger age. Resisting the “unearned privilege of the protege” is a very difficult thing to do.
Invitations to the Old Boys Club don’t come on monogrammed Crane’s stationery. They frequently come in the form of the casual, “Hey, we’re going out for drinks later”. Sometimes, the Club is obvious in its sexism, inviting “Derek” but not his fellow intern “Delilah”. More commonly, Derek and Delilah both get invited. Delilah, however, soon senses that the invitation to “hang with the guys” was made more out of obligation than desire. She may notice that some of the men seem uncomfortable with her, or that the conversation over drinks seems designed to exclude her. The older Boys in the office don’t have to take their junior colleagues to Hooters or a strip club to make the sexism obvious; indeed, that kind of crassness is becoming (one hears) somewhat rarer. But from what I hear even now, it’s still common for a young woman, out in social situations with male bosses and co-workers, to feel the tangible presence of a wall separating her from a group of men who might well wish that she would go home early, so the “free talk” (sexist and profane) can begin.
I can remember when I was in graduate school working briefly with a professor who was famous for his sexism and his lechery. A first-rate renaissance scholar, he had made sexual advances towards several young women in the department. Though I’d like to think that the situation would be different today, Professor “M” never got in serious trouble. I spent one quarter in 1990 as his research assistant; when we were alone together, he would often ask me what I thought about the looks of my female fellow grad students. I was uncomfortable, of course, and at first I said nothing, trying to change the subject. The best part of me wanted to tell him off; the worst part of me wanted to join in, eager to win his approval by bonding with him at the expense of the women in my program. Frozen between the two options, for several weeks I tried to avoid being alone with him, fighting the temptation to succumb and “be one of the boys” with this powerful older man. I’m ashamed to say that I only “told him off” at the end of the quarter, after he had signed my final time sheet: I told “Professor M” that I had felt very uncomfortable with what he had been saying, and that I would advise the women in my department to steer clear of him. He sneered at me, and we never spoke again. (Fortunately, my primary program was in medieval history, not early modern, where he had considerable power.) I learned a good lesson about the importance of speaking up, and speaking up at once. I’m glad to say I’ve never waited so long to confront sexism again. When a similar situation happened here at PCC, ,with a now-retired colleague who was one of my pre-tenure supervisors, I was able to speak up. I lost his friendship, but gained a measure of self-respect.
Invitations to the Old Boys Club come in many forms, some subtle, some crass. Frequently, they involve opportunities to bond with senior men through talking — in sexist, objectifying language — about women. Other times, particularly if the young man (like Derek, or myself at his age) is open about his feminist leanings, an Old Boys Club member will, when no one else is around, ask half-jokingly “So, are you really serious about this feminist shit, or do you just want to get laid?” Or, more obliquely: “Come on, Derek, the women aren’t around, you can drop the touchy-feely stuff.” If you are a young man, low in status in a newsroom or a corporate office or an academic department, the senior men will almost always try and assess your suitability for the OBC early on in one way or another; what is often euphemistically called “collegiality” is just code for “willing to play along and not challenge us.”
In our culture, we socialize men to crave the approval of other males, particularly those in positions of authority. The pressure to “give in” and join the OBC isn’t just from older men; for many of us, it comes from within ourselves, as it speaks to our powerful, socialized desire to have our masculinity validated by alpha males. Telling Derek something I’m sure he already knows, I said that it’s very easy to be a feminist man in a women’s studies program. While being one of the very few men to major in Women’s Studies can have its challenges, those challenges are nothing compared to holding on to one’s feminism in the workplace, in the face of the overwhelming pressure to conform to the standard for male sexist behavior. “Walking the walk” of feminism in the face of the very real temptation to become complicit in the Great Crime of institutionalized sexism can be incredibly difficult.
I’ll be honest: sometimes, I don’t know how my feminist brothers in the corporate world avoid complicity. In a sense, I have it easy: I’m tenured, and I don’t really have a supervisor. I am the only man on campus teaching gender studies. There is an Old Boy’s Network on campus, and I do get the chance to spar with it from time to time, but I do so from a position of relative impunity. If I piss off a colleague by calling him on his sexism (which I’ve done — here’s an example), the only tangible consequence is a cold shoulder. For a young man trying to make it in journalism (or any other market-driven profession), resisting the temptation to accept the countless small OBC invitations that come his way is going to be far more difficult.
In the end, the reason to avoid joining the Old Boys’ Club is about more than just maintaining one’s feminist credibility. It’s about understanding that now, in 21st century America, white male power is maintained less through overt legal structures than through hidden social constructions. White men can no longer exclude women and people of color from leadership positions by fiat alone; indeed, most white men probably don’t consciously want to. But what they do want to do, consciously or not, is maintain an environment in which straight white men — “the Old Boys” — continue to enjoy privilege and comfort. The greatest of those privileges is the sense of belonging. The hard fact is, in order to make most workplaces welcoming to women and non-whites, the Old Boys will have to change the way they do many things. Decades of feminism, decades of civil rights legislation, have done little to dismantle the entrenched resistance on the part of the OBC to surrendering that privilege.
In the end, if you’re a feminist man, the single most important thing you can do is make it clear, in your words and in your actions, that you not only are not looking for OBC membership, but will, politely but firmly, reject it when it is offered.
And trust me. It will be offered.