We’re all familiar with the concept of a “Boys’ Club.” The phrase immediately paints the picture of an informally connected group of men who use their relationships with each other to develop and grow their careers. And somewhere along the way, the phrase Boys’ Club became synonymous with a closed network—an affinity group that favors its members at the expense of outsiders.
First let me say: I don’t want to tear down affinity groups. Connecting over shared experiences and rooting for your friends is normal. And we are all reaching a hand down to pull people up whenever we can. But my issue with the Boys’ Clubs is that, in many cases, they’ve cornered the market on leadership roles, C-suite positions, and board room occupancy. So, until there’s more representation at the highest level, the deck will always be stacked in favor of the “boys” sitting in the corner offices.
And here’s where that turns toxic: Women can’t break into Boys’ Clubs. Not ever. Not really. You can take up golf and feign an interest in March Madness, but unless these things match up with your authentic hobbies and interests, you’re just pretending. And too often, that’s what women who want to advance their careers have resorted to doing. We’ve been pressured to become chameleons, fitting in with the Boys’ Clubs so that we’re not left behind.
We need to do more to create real pathways for women to succeed, and women leveraging their own networks and affinity groups could be one way to blaze new trails.
Build your network. (And accept all qualified members.)
As I said, I don’t want to tear down Boys’ Clubs. What I want is a Girls’ Club. An affinity network motivated to leverage connections and bring more women to the proverbial table.
If I’m assembling my dream team Girl Squad, I’d start with a strong roster of female members, of course. Women can be strong advocates for women because they recognize the nuanced challenges we face in the workplace. Those who have risen through the leadership chain, most of us feel accountable for paying it forward by empowering the next generation of talent.
But don’t limit membership to your club based on gendered standards. For starters, there simply aren’t enough women in positions of power to solely rely on women, and frankly, many women have been the “only’s” in the room for far too long and can have a zero-sum mentality. Those women may not have the privilege of being an ally. If that’s the case, don’t shy away from asking for and seeking sponsorship from men in power. A Girls’ Club is not about men vs women, after all. There are plenty of men that would love to see more women advance. Many want to help but don’t know-how, and they have enough power and influence to spread around. They can support many men AND women.
And as you’re building your network, remember to make it multidimensional. Have mentors (someone who speaks to you), advocates (someone who speaks about you in rooms and levels you don’t have access to yet), and a sponsor or two (someone who will open doors, vouch for you with their reputation and recommend you for leadership roles). Do your part to pay it forward with someone who is more junior in their career to you, and don’t forget to include a strong level of peer support to inspire and support you.
Once you find your people, look out for each other.
Your network is not just about who you call on when you’re looking to ascend to the next level of your career ladder. As women, we experience microaggressions and unconscious biases in the workplace. I wish that wasn’t the truth, but there’s no escaping it. Women are held to a different standard when they speak up, when they ascend to success and when they fail. All of this can be overwhelming.
So, as you’re building your Girls’ Club, don’t just look at people that can help you level up in your career. Find people that can help you in your current role. Bring people that empathize with the female experience into your network of work colleagues and look out for each other. If you’re in a meeting where someone starts interrupting you, is there someone who can offer an assist to gently redirect the conversation back to you? Wouldn’t it be nice if you had someone in the room that could make sure you’re credited for your contributions to a discussion? Sometimes, having someone else in the room who can say “Ashley, we haven’t heard from you on this. Is there anything you would add?” can mean the difference between visibility as a leader and being left out. This is the magic of a Girls Club, lifting each other up whenever possible.
Be your biggest advocate.
If I could wave a magic wand and construct around you a network of smart, accomplished people who are advocating for the advancement of women, that still might not make a dent in what you can accomplish or how empowered you feel if you’re not ready to advocate for yourself.
I tell candidates this all the time: You must be the MOST loyal to yourself. Too often, women fall victim to the narrative that loyalty to their employers will be the key to unlocking future success. We think we’re sneaking around when we take an interview. We’ve been conditioned to follow the rules and wait patiently. But this isn’t how Boys’ Club members are navigating through the world. They know what they want, and they ask for what they deserve.
There might be systemic and structural issues that sometimes prevent you from reaching the next level in your current role. Maybe there isn’t an interest in advancing female leadership at your company. Don’t wait hopefully for the tide to turn. Don’t reward companies that are falling behind in your expectations with your loyalty.
Lean into your network and find out who’s doing it right when it comes to creating a sense of belonging within their company culture—not just for women by the way, but for everyone. In a market, this hot, employers not prioritizing culture and belonging are going to pay a price, and they should. My hope is that we all get to a place of more equity through visibility and belonging. Equity isn’t being just like men or being successful like a man. It’s about creating a space for women and a sense of belonging for their points of view at every level.
Not everything is as good as it could be when it comes to representation and belonging, but there are companies out there working toward a more inclusive, more supportive work culture for women and other minority communities. (Spoiler: Most of them have strong female representation in their C-suites.) If you’re at one of these companies, pay it forward by taking the networking call from someone looking to make the leap. And if you’re not, the lucky byproduct of your Girls’ Club may be that you find someone who is before too long.
Whatever you do, don’t let yourself stay too long in a culture where women are still trying to be just like the men. Too often, women “fake it until they make it” in male-dominated workplaces. But you can’t fake who you are. And the more we try to fit in, the more ordinary we become. We dull our instincts because we’re on high alert trying to listen for external queues on how we should act or what we should think. We’re less authentic and less likely to go against the status quo. The more we try to be like someone—anyone—else, the more we’re silencing what it is that we bring to the arena that’s unique and innovative. When the Boys’ Clubs make the rules, we lose before the game even starts. It’s time to redraw the teams and give women more deliberate, thoughtful support.