This piece was originally posted on the Good Men Project. Republished with permission.
As we continue to assess the fall-out from the Penn State scandal, a near-consensus has developed that “Old Boys’ Networks” are a huge part of the problem. Whether they’re found in corporations or athletic departments or churches, Old Boys’ Networks often tend to be characterized by three things: an insistence on intense loyalty to the organization, a disdain for outsiders, and a systematic process by which younger men (but rarely young women) are groomed by older ones for future leadership.
If we don’t want more Penn States, we need to do more than opine about accountability. We’ve got to dismantle the Old Boys’ Networks (OBNs). And the most enduring way to dismantle them is for young men to refuse to join in the first place. That’s easy to say—and harder to do.
Particularly for young white men working for older white men, the pressure to join the OBN can be simultaneously intense and subtle. Most of us, as we age and climb whatever ladder it is we are climbing, look to mentor younger folks. The desire for a protégé is a common one: once they reach a certain point in their career, middle-aged men are taught to look for younger versions of themselves. Whether it’s in journalism or business, the priesthood or a typical university athletic department, those “younger selves” are heavily weighted towards middle or upper-middle class white guys in their twenties.
Even those male supervisors who want to mentor women may find themselves more likely to support and nurture a young man with whom they feel that emotional affinity, that narcissistic sense of themselves at a younger age. Add in an all too familiar awkwardness about working with younger women (fear of company gossip, fear of what wives might think, fear of sexual harassment allegations), and the temptation to focus heavily on young men becomes intense.
Invitations to the OBN 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. Why don’t you come with us?” Sometimes, the Network 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 Old Boys in the office don’t have to take their junior colleagues to Hooters or a strip club to make the sexism obvious.
As countless professional women will attest, it’s still common for a young female employee, 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. My friend Linda, who had the experience of being an unwanted but tolerated female presence many times, recalls “the unmistakable signs of relief, accompanied by totally unconvincing displays of regret” when she announced that she’d be skipping a company dinner or golf tournament.
Invitations to the OBN come in many forms, some subtle, some crass. When I was in graduate school more than 20 years ago, I worked as a research assistant to a very distinguished historian, a man in his early 60s with a publication record longer than my arm. I was also enrolled in one of his seminars, where I was one of eight students—but only two males. When I was meeting with him alone to talk about our research project, Professor M (who had a reputation as a lecher and a harasser) was always eager to talk about the bodies of my female fellow graduate students. I felt uncomfortable and usually tried to change the subject, but on one occasion gave in and indulged him.
I remember the way Professor M’s eyes lit up and how much more friendly he seemed to me after we’d finally left the topic of what the young women in my department were wearing in order to talk about work. He treated me as if I’d earned his respect and his trust. But I felt sick, having lost respect for myself as well as for him. I felt as if I’d betrayed the female students who were my friends. When the quarter was over and my research contract with him was up, I made sure never to work with Professor M again. But I never forgot that feeling—sickening and flattering all at once—of being taken into the sexual confidence of a renowned scholar who seemed to treat me as a potential protégé. The allure of the OBN is powerful, and no male-dominated institution is immune.
In academic as well as corporate settings, Old Boys are good at assessing which young men will “play along” and which ones won’t. When a young man seems to treat women as genuine equals, and shows a reluctance to embrace the OBN, the Old Boys may test him. As a man doing academic work in women’s studies, one of my grad school supervisors asked me, “So, are you really serious about this feminist shit or do you just want to get laid?” An Old Boy may be more oblique: “Come on, son, 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 OBN early on in one way or another. What is often euphemistically called “collegiality” or being a “team player” is just code for “willing to go along and not challenge us.”
The OBN thrives on the lie that it’s okay for men who work together to lead collective double lives. Today’s Old Boys are publicly committed to proper procedure and gender inclusiveness, having learned the importance of saying all the right things. In private, however, they value loyalty above transparency. That’s the mindset that explains why Mike McQueary, the young Penn State assistant who witnessed a boy being raped by a revered campus leader, chose to tell only his father (and a father figure, Coach Joe Paterno) rather than going at once to the police. McQueary had already been well-groomed to understand that his loyalty to the OBN trumped even the responsibility to protect a child from an OBN member.
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 OBN isn’t just from older men; for many of us, it comes from within ourselves, as it speaks to our intense, socialized desire to have our masculinity validated by powerful father figures. Sometimes, the OBN coerces us to join a club we already long to join.
Perhaps that’s why it isn’t easy to refuse OBN invitations. One key way to make it easier is to seek out mentors of both sexes. Another is to form close working relationships with women as well as men, resisting the temptation to “flee” to all-male spaces. Men and women can be friends outside of work as well as colleagues in the office. As long as we maintain the fiction that that’s too difficult or too at odds with the laws of nature, the OBN will continue to have a much easier time finding new recruits among the ranks of already privileged young men while excluding women of every age. And a new generation in the Old Boys Networks will learn to cover up for the most indefensible and horrific actions of its members.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people’s attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and at Healthy Is the New Skinny.
Photo credit OblioZen/Flickr.