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All About Boys’ Clubs: How They Operate and How to Manage

Written By: Lexxie Monahan

We see boys’ clubs depicted in movies all the time. A good-looking group of dudes dressed in designer suits sit in an executive suite throwing back bourbons, reaching for scantily clad assistants, and making thoughtless decisions that negatively impact everyone. It’s a great plot line for sure. The hero in this journey typically finds a way in, breaks up the club, and saves the world. It’s so over the top you can’t possibly believe it’s reality until you experience it, and it sucks when you do.  

The first step to fighting it, or not, is recognizing it for what it is. From my perspective, there are two types of boys’ clubs, the intentional boys’ club (IBC) and the accidental boys’ club (ABC). The former is often impenetrable and problematic and the latter can sometimes be leveraged for good. 

IBCs are formed when a misogynist with power (we’ll call him “the kingpin”) starts making friends (we’ll call them “soldiers”). These days, misogynists are typically more subtle but you might notice him making passive-aggressive comments towards women and known allies, responding poorly to feedback, and dismissing non-male ideas. In my experience, there is also often an overlap with racism, so also be wary of racist microaggressions. 

The kingpin’s soldiers are usually white and male, but the most important qualifier is that they are compliant to his racism, misogyny, and power grabs. This means there can be token outliers (women, non-cisgender, non-white folks) who are included because they don’t rock the boat and lend credibility to the kingpin. 

Once the soldiers are identified, you’ll notice the kingpin slowly but surely concentrating power within his non-diverse circle. The benefit of this elaborate system is exactly how it’s depicted in movies: it insulates, multiplies, and concentrates power and money. Soldiers gain steam in projects, promotions, raises, and HR protections, while the non-compliant fall behind, and the kingpin is empowered to implement his vision.  

For those experiencing an IBC, in my opinion, you have two options: stay or go.

Everyone has a different tolerance for toxic environments, so each choice is valid. You might stay because you know the misogynist will be short-lived; trusting the leadership above will recognize the problem. You might be relatively insulated from the fallout or have few other options.

Regardless, my advice to you in this situation is to take care of yourself. Consider if there are any steps you can take to honor your distaste for the problem. For instance, could you report some of the problematic behavior to HR with little blowback?  

If your tolerance is low but your ambition high, you might try fighting it. This means documenting bad behavior and reporting it appropriately. Save emails, take notes about conversations and off-color comments, and try to build as airtight of a case as you can. If you have connections within the institution's leadership team, you might bring it to them or report it directly to HR. If neither of those options goes over well, you can consult an attorney. 

If your tolerance is low and your ambition is low, leave. There are greener pastures. I promise. 

ABCs are more manageable. This is when a group of guys at work—which may or may not include a person in a leadership position—become friends. This means they might share time together in and outside of the office but, just like work wives, they do it with the intent of enjoying and supporting one another. I have a soft spot for ABCs because I've noticed the problem of male loneliness in my personal life and I love to see guys making friends.

Sometimes ABCs don't feel great because they have inside jokes (speak sport) and boost each other professionally, but it’s not problematic because they aren’t concentrating power or intentionally excluding anyone. Unlike UBCs, they don't have a kingpin and there is generally a humility to the way the group behaves. Most members are open to feedback and advice at the same rate as others outside the group.

You can typically find a way into the circle by building a relationship with one or more of them. Invite them to coffee, stop by their office for advice, and be curious about their life outside work.  Word will get around to members of the group that you're cool and there you have it: another group of allies for you to connect with.

Ultimately, one of two things will likely happen. The ABC will expand to include the original ABC, you, and those you like and trust, creating a broader culture of camaraderie and support. In this case, keep in mind you have a responsibility to be inclusive to those who want to join. The other potential outcome is that the ABC will continue to exist without expanding, though individual members will be more comfortable with you. The outcome here is largely determined by the personalities of the members, so try to avoid being offended if it doesn't expand broadly.

Humans are social beings. In-groups and outgroups are ubiquitous, and boys' clubs are largely a subset of that human inclination to create groups that help us feel safe and connected. But it’s important to be aware and address them when groups do the opposite by creating a toxic culture instead of operating equitably.  Everyone deserves to feel that they belong, are valued, and are treated equitably in the workplace and beyond. 


Meet the Author

Lexxie Monahan

Lexxie Monahan is always aspiring to something, whether it’s work-related (climbing a rung then the next) or personal (exploring herself or the world) - she’s always chasing some goal off in the horizon. Otherwise, she’s trying to make sure she keeps her kids, dog, and plants alive - preferably while sitting.


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