If you think the Old Boys' Club phenomenon is dead and gone, think again. This once venerable tradition may be less visible today, but it still exists. Because of Old Boys' Clubs -- there is one in almost every organization -- advancement into the executive ranks, for men as well as women, usually requires more than just hard work and impressive achievements. You need connections and visibility at the top.
Women in the most senior ranks across corporate America do exist, but they are shockingly few in number. Only 18 of the Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs in 2012, and yet this is an all-time record high. Women also earn less than their male counterparts. For example, the median weekly wage for women working full-time in 2010 was $669 compared with $824 for men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a gap of 19 percent.
Why the Old Boys' Club Still Exists
The Old Boys' Club tradition is still around because it’s effective. Senior managers aren’t comfortable promoting a woman based solely on her documented work record. They want to talk to someone who knows the candidate and has seen her in action. The club tends to remain an “old boys” and not a “boys and girls” club because women who make it into the senior ranks are reluctant to promote other women for fear of being accused of gender bias. Men don't fear promoting other men because it's common practice.
Blow Your Own Horn, But Gently
Even though women tend to be very uncomfortable with highlighting their own achievements, to advance into the executive ranks, you have to learn to promote your own cause. Don’t be obnoxious about it, but make sure that your boss is aware of what you've accomplished. You can carefully disguise your bragging by asking for feedback. For example, you can say, “Now that I’ve finished this big project, I’d like to review it with you to see whether or not you think my approach was effective.” Ask for opportunities that you think you deserve. If a big presentation is coming up and you think you’re the right person to take the platform, ask your boss -- privately, of course -- for the opportunity and explain why you think you can do the best job.
Like some segments of society, the “senior executive club” requires sponsorship. You can’t just knock on the door and enter, nor will it do you any good to stand on the doorstep and wait to be invited in. Find yourself a mentor, and make sure it’s someone with the connections to get you the opportunities you need. A sponsor can highlight your achievements to the top ranks and advocate for your advancement. And don't think it has to be a woman. In fact, a man may have a better network to promote your cause than a woman.
- Harvard Business Review: Co-Opt the Old Boys' Club: Make It Work for Women
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Current Population Survey: Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2010
- Talking From 9 to 5; Deborah Tannen, Ph.D.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.