Boys Clubs at work are making you a poorer leader
Bosses, booze, and bros
When I was studying engineering at a college in back-of-beyond Haryana, we used to have strict hostel timings for the Girls Hostel.
The day's lectures ended at 4.30pm, and by 6pm, we would be herded in and locked up. Extra-study, use of the library or the computer lab, project work, extra-curricular activities - none of these were considered legitimate reasons for requests to stay uncaged an extra few hours. In fact, girls who requested extra uncaged time were casually subjected to some seriously traumatizing slut-shaming by the Professors and Wardens. A lot of it still rings in my ears.
Unfortunately, I was very active on the extra-curricular scene in college - college official magazine, students' wall magazine, cultural committees, technical fests - you name it. And all of this stuff could only happen after the lectures were done. So I had to get creative.
I told the Warden that I had this Aunt who happened to stay in a nearby district of rural Haryana. Sadly, my poor Aunt fell sick a lot - especially around the time I had to work on any of the extracurricular activities I was interested in.
So my Aunt would duly summon me and I would sneak around to printers' shops, sponsor meets, committee meetings - all the while hoping that the Warden didn’t feel a sudden urge to take an evening walk around campus.
My poor sweet Karnal-vaali Aunty served me well, and I spent four long years by her bedside at opportune times.
The thought of having maintained this lie for all those years used to make me smile. But today, it makes my blood boil.
A student had to sneak around, risk her safety, lie to her local guardians and teachers in order to gain access to essential college experiences. This was a monumental failure on the part of our education system, and that is putting it mildly.
One of the consequences of this ridiculous Chinese Walling-off of women was that the young men became accustomed to having only men around for important conversations. Video games and drinking in the Boys Hostel would dissolve into critical decision-making meetings.
The girls could be informed the next day, if at all.
The lopsided foundation laid in these early years - in almost all reputed educational institutions of India - has led to the leaning tower of sexism that is our current corporate culture. The students of those days are the men and women running the world today.
Well, at least the men are.
The women remain a minority, an afterthought - for whom access to the Boys Club is still an elusive privilege.
“I second-guessed myself constantly”
Maya always had a great working relationship with her colleagues. They were a good team at work, and occasionally planned catch-ups after hours too. But then, some changes were made in the team, and some people moved around.
"Suddenly I became the only woman left on the team. The men started meeting regularly after work - for drinking, bowling, playing pool, etc. Usually, I wasn't invited. Sometimes, plans were made at the last minute and I was not able to join. I even started feeling excluded from their interactions at work - they had inside jokes and references to their parties. I felt isolated, and out of place, even around the male colleagues who I previously considered friends."
Soon, Maya discovered that camaraderie was not all that she was missing out on.
"They would discuss ideas, clients, teams at their informal get-togethers. I would often discover that new project teams had been formed and high impact projects were already underway, without a single mention in any formal meeting. I was constantly playing catch-up, despite being the seniormost person on the team. It made me lose my confidence and second guess myself constantly."
Rowdy Drunken “Team Parties”
Komal works in a shipbuilding company.
"Most of my colleagues are men. Women employees occasionally attend some after-office events, but we have a personal deadlines in order to get home safe."
Since Komal became a mother a few years back, even her short appearances such events have dwindled.
"Attending these things was easier when I wasn't a mother. But now, I can barely manage to make an appearance before I have to rush home to my kids."
Komal recalls a party she did attend where she ended up having a very important professional conversation with the boss.
"My manager took me aside at one of these parties to discuss if a particular role was interesting to me. It was an exciting new prospect coming up and we had an exploratory conversation - right there in the party - about me taking it up. It made me wonder how many other critical conversations, and therefore opportunities, I must have missed out on because I could not join these parties."
Komal cannot help but compare her career graph with another colleague who has had the same performance ratings as her in the past few years.
"He is present at every after-office party. He even hosts rowdy drunken 'team parties' at his house - after shipping his wife over to her mom's house, of course. He is now heading a team and I think a lot - if not all - of this success is thanks to his partying patterns. I can’t even imagine hosting a group of drunk men at my place and asking my husband to scoot off!"
Smoking and Schmoozing often go hand-in-hand
When Urja began her career at an IT software development firm, she found herself placed in a heavily male-dominated team serving a banking client.
"My boss used to take smoking breaks in the office campus's Smoking Zone. One of my male colleagues started timing his own smoking breaks with the boss's."
On these breaks, Urja's teammate would get exclusive access to vital information.
"He chatted with the boss about what the client wanted, what projects would materialize, what projects were available, etc. He would make requests for the best projects on these smoking breaks, and the boss would approve them, then and there. I started getting the leftover projects that nobody wanted."
Her colleague's cosy relationship with the boss started helping his career.
"His career progressed by leaps and bounds - far better than mine, even though we both agreed that I was the better worker. There was no avenue for me to bring this issue to anyone's attention. Eventually, the lack of growth opportunity made me leave the organization."
Years later, Urja ran into this male colleague somewhere.
"He admitted to what he had been doing at the time. He said 'What I did was wrong and unfair to you' and apologized for it."
"These unseen barriers mean that women’s performance either gets limited or overlooked. Smoking, for example, is a boys club. Women usually don't smoke, or can't smoke in public without being gossiped about. And even if a woman did smoke, that is no way to get access to professional information."
The Woman who Smokes
Tina works in a sales position in one of India's largest consumer goods companies. She joins her boss and teammates on the smoking breaks they take.
"We are a close team of five and noone cares that a woman is also along for the sutta (smoking) break. But, when we work across teams, or with my boss’s bosses, the Boys Club rules apply. I am not made to feel welcome or comfortable at the smoking circles. I probably don't even know how much I have missed out on because of this despite being a smoker myself."
Boys clubs go deeper than just "sutta breaks", she says.
"These informal interactions form a deeper bond. Back-slapping, using sexually obscene language, sharing sexist jokes, using the same gaalis (slurs) in normal conversation - all of this acts as a conversational lubricant between men. They literally speak the same language - which women do not.”
“I have had a boss who could not even bring himself to look me in the eye when talking to me. His conversations with me were respectful, but always clipped. With the men on the team, he would have long, friendly chats. These things matter, especially when your job is based on building rapports and informal connections.
Wanted: An Agile Waterfall (whatever that means)
Neeta works in the India team of one of the world's largest tech companies.
"The company, as a whole, is known for being meritocratic, open, and inclusive. But I work in a small startup within this larger company, which has developed a very toxic culture of its own. It is a Boys Club and the women on the team are routinely excluded from critical conversations, even when our own roles are being discussed."
Neeta shares an example of working in this team.
"The bosses based in US would land at Delhi airport in the middle of the night. We live in Bangalore. All the men would take overnight flights to meet the bosses at Delhi airport at 4 am. There, they would hold 'breakfast strategy sessions' and discuss critical upcoming opportunities. Not surprisingly, all the plum opportunities went to the men."
When Neeta questioned this pattern, she was told she is welcome to join the 4 a.m. 'meetings'.
"As a woman, I cannot take a 2 a.m. flight to have coffee and donuts at Delhi airport every few weeks. So the 'invitation' to join was a meaningless one, and the men knew it."
The same thing would happen when foreign travel was concerned.
"The bosses would ask us to turn up in the US at a 1-2 day notice. Men in the team would drop everything and fly out to US, even to meet for a few hours. I am a mother of a three-year-old. I cannot drop everything and take a flight like this."
"I requested the bosses to give us a bit more notice for international travel. I was told I 'plan too much', I am 'not able to handle ambiguity', 'not able to rise up to the challenge', 'not able to manage change'. All of these are careful euphemisms men use to keep the women firmly out of the conversation. Men don't take on their fair share of workload at home, and then penalize us for it at the workplace too."
Things came to a head for Neeta when her boss started re-allocating her role to others in her absence.
"Earlier this year, my boss took the men of the team out for drinks after work. In my absence, he divided all the thinking and strategy part of my work between the men. He held neither common meetings, nor individual conversations with me before doing this."
"The next day, when I questioned him about it, he said, 'You are a working mother, I wanted to be conscious of your time.' The fact was, I had already completed the strategizing part of my project - something he would have known if he had this conversation in an office meeting instead of a drinks party."
"When I pointed this out to him, he panicked and began spouting nonsensical sentences, like, 'You don't work in an agile model, you work in a waterfall model'. I wrote this sentence down and, to this day, I don't know what it means. All I know is, within 6 months of this boss being given charge, all the women on the team had left."
Leadership beyond the boys at the bar
Smriti is an engineer and a mother of two, working in a manufacturing company.
"When I was the only woman in the team, I would often wonder whether or not to go to the after-office parties. The first party I went to was in a discotheque, and the men got drunk to the point of losing control. I left as quickly as I could, and decided not to go to such parties in the future."
Of course, Smriti noticed that missing the parties meant missing out on important conversations.
"My manager would use these parties as opportunities to discuss on-site assignments, provide one-to-one coaching, and to build an overall rapport with his team. Nominations for a prestigious international conference were discussed and finalized during one such party. It was great industry exposure and I never even got a chance to put my hat in the ring for it."
"One of my colleagues similarly got to work on an international project because he used to go on sutta breaks with the boss. I later found out that this guy had actually started smoking only to get access to these conversations!"
Smriti saw a systemic problem and raised it at the next leadership-connect meeting - a platform designed to take such employee feedback.
"I pointed out that using informal platforms like parties at discotheques for professional conversations excluded the women. I said I wasn’t opposed to parties per se, but we should have them in a setting where women can join as well. Whether or not I drink or smoke should not affect my career progression. After the meeting, people started calling me a spoilsport."
The episode left Smriti questioning herself.
"I would tell myself that I was bad at networking. But with age and experience, I have realized that this is not networking. This is a Boys Club and we do not have an invitation to it."
It all comes down to the managers and leaders, according to her.
"Leadership is a huge responsibility. You need to be very careful about how your words and actions might be interpreted. Mentioning things casually is one thing, but if you take actual decisions based on these casual conversations with just a handful of schmoozing men, you are simply a bad leader."
A decade later, Smriti is a Manager herself and chooses to lead her team differently.
"I encourage my team to have get-togethers at lunchtime. Or after office hours, but in a setting where the families are also welcome to join. No one in my team misses out on these crucial informal connects because they don't want to be a part of a drunken revelry with their colleagues and boss."
Boys Clubs are real, and they hinder sound leadership
In 2020, two Harvard researchers set about to find out if the "Old Boys' Club" was a reality in the modern workplace as well. Here is what they found:
Over a four-year period, male employees assigned a male manager were promoted faster than their female counterparts, with no observable difference in performance. Women, in turn, were promoted at the same rate whether assigned to a male manager or female manager. Male employees benefited from the higher rates of social interactions with their male managers.
The study also found that 40% of the gender pay gap can be attributed to this "male-to-male advantage".
Smoking breaks, drinking nights, 4a.m. breakfasts across the country - these are just some of the many ways that workplace culture, especially under male bosses, gets skewed in favour of male employees.
This skewing may not even be a conscious one. But its impact is very real and very negative - not just on women employees, but on the workplace and organization as a whole.
Senior management in all companies all over the world is predominantly male. It is a widely-recognized gender imbalance. The problem in combating this imbalance - and its many cousins, like the glass ceiling and the gender pay gap - is that it is self-perpetuating.
Translation: Men like and promote other men over women. Even when the woman is equally - or even more - competent and meritorious. And so, the cycle continues.
What can I do about it as a male boss?
If you are a bossman, close your eyes and picture what team-building and team bonding activities look like. Are you seeing visuals featuring smokes, sports, and testosterone-fueled boozefests? Or are you seeing activities that are equally accessible to a woman who cannot be out after hours without risking her safety, and a mother who has a toddler to get back home to?
If your vision was that of a Boys Club, I get it - you are only human, and humans have biases. We all like some people more than others. When you have a task to assign, you are more likely to assign it to the guy with whom you watch 20-20 matches, than the woman you only see at work. (Heck, you have biases that make even less sense than that - most bosses actually give important projects, perks, and promotions to simply the tallest guy in the room.)
Most often, we are not conscious of these biases.
The simplest solution to correct this is to hire more women. Just the presence of more women in the room has a significant impact on making the team culture more inclusive.
And while it is okay for most people to be human and have favourites, a leader has to be extra-conscious of the biases fogging up their windshield.
My sickly Karnal-vaali Aunty would have concurred, had she ever existed.
If you like this newsletter, show me your love by buying me a coffee. Click ‘Membership’ or ‘Support’ on: