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Despite increased diversity, ‘Boys Club’ culture has not disappeared… it has merely evolved

Working with corporate and executive teams around Australia, we’ve noticed an interesting trend: increasing talk of ‘Boys Club’ culture’. With the multitude of media reports of late exposing sexism and harassment within Uber’s executive teams, leaders have reasons to examine their own company culture for anything untoward. Minor forms of exclusion can bubble beneath a company’s surface, eventually erupting into division, high turnover, or damaged morale.

The Boys Club has its roots in a time when executive positions in organisations were literally an exclusive ‘club’ (and exclusively male), There were significant barriers to entry, high internal loyalty and secrecy, and usually invitation only. It mattered most who you knew. In today’s business world we talk of meritocracies, and executive positions based solely on capability and achievement. While a significant shift in thought, more work still needs to be done to remove this default behaviour.

But even as diversity in the workplace increases, the Boys Club Culture hasn’t disappeared as the Uber scandal demonstrates. While these clear demonstrations are a serious issue, what’s equally concerning is that this culture of exclusion is evolving and comes in many different forms.

It may have changed; it is much less deliberate than in the past, in fact the leaders we’ve worked with are either unaware of it or genuinely believe it’s not there. And this is part of the problem – if you don’t know you have a problem, how can you do anything about it? We’ve identified four most common ways the ‘Boys Club’ culture can be present while leaders remain largely unaware of it. Importantly, each of these can result in ‘Girls Club’ equivalents or other exclusive divisions, each problematic in their own right.

  1. The Hobby Club – This one starts with a core group of executives who discover they have an interest in common. In these days of increased focus on body/mind fitness amongst middle aged execs it is often an active interest, for example cycling, golf, running, yoga. These groups tend to be gender skewed, and they discuss their shared interest before and after exec meetings and in corridor conversations. As an outsider you feel you don’t belong, and you wonder what is shared, or what decisions are made when you’re not around.
  2. The A-Team Club – This one has deep roots. Perhaps they started the business together, perhaps they worked together in a different business and the boss brought them across with him/her – either way they know each other well. They may have a shortcut language or reference common stories, they may understand each other’s thought processes more deeply and have a legacy of shared success and achievement. It feels exclusive because an outsider cannot join in on these shared past experiences.
  3. The Locker Room Club – Back to the origins of the ‘Boys Club’ concept, this one is a product of long-term gender imbalance. Certain conversations are more easily held limited to one gender, be it men discussing the weekend’s footy match or women discussing each other’s outfits, certain topics may make an individual of the other gender feel unable to contribute. Protracted time with one gender dominating the team normalises these conversations, and creates communication issues within the team.
  4. The Clone Club – This one is the result of a preference for self-similarity over diversity. It’s often not conscious – over time a leader selects and promotes people who look, sound and act like him or her, more seeking a sense of uniformity and shared thinking than anything. The natural result is a club who share preferences, approach and behaviour.  For those outside the club it feels exclusive because they can see they are different and can’t belong.

Each of these Boys Clubs is unintentional, with no deliberate attempt to exclude individuals or colleagues. For this reason, the team’s leader may be surprised, even disbelieving at the suggestion one exists, and potentially dismissive or discouraging of attempts to address it. But the perception of a Boys Club – although unintended – and its consequences are real. These perceptions inform the stories people will tell about exclusion and inclusion, and this will drive the culture.

Now that you’ve identified or have been informed of a Boys Club culture within your team, what do you do?

We have a very practical definition of culture: it is the interplay between the aggregate of your people’s behaviour (what we do around here) and your/their sense making (the stories we tell about what we do, formal and informal). The stories influence the behaviour of people; the behaviour informs the stories. This feedback loop means your culture is complex and adaptive, and you have two levers to pull to influence it:

Firstly, your behaviour informs their stories. So take the feedback seriously, and be seen to do it.  Set a standard for communication in your team and to a wider audience: look for examples of exclusionary conversation (“locker room banter” or gendered jokes) and be seen to stomp on them. Guide your team into other casual conversations without these elements, so your people learn alternative ways to have fun.

Secondly, your stories influence their behaviour. All leaders tell stories of organisational ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ to influence behaviour. Make sure your stories encourage inclusion and disparage exclusion, and that your heroes come from both genders.  Reduce the stories about ‘how it was in the past” or “what time/score we got on the weekend” if those are your particular Boys Clubs. Find and tell stories about surprises, positive conflict, disagreement and diversity, your people will get the message that this is what matters.

About the Author

Chris Maxwell is co-founder of 10,000 Hours, a firm specialising in helping leaders work in uncertainty. He is an expert in facilitating leadership learning sessions, guiding management teams through organisational change or business disruption and strategy.

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Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

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