How the ‘Old Boys’ Club’ Thrives on the Culture of Silence

4 minute read

Silence is the most powerful weapon of the harasser. Just ask the women whose employment contracts prohibited them from speaking out about gross mistreatment at the hands of Harvey Weinstein. Over the past couple weeks, we’ve celebrated their bravery in coming forward and rejoiced in seeing Weinstein removed from his company. But we all know that there are many, many more Weinsteins out there to be brought to justice.

When women are not allowed or enabled to give voice to their experiences, they disappear. “When I was fired, I stopped existing,” one woman, who does not work in Hollywood, told me in an interview for my book. “Life went on at my company as if I’d never been there.”

I heard variations of this story many times after coming out with my own experience being sexually harassed, and I’ve seen how haunted these women are, how often they play back the events in their minds and wonder if they did something wrong or could have acted differently. Even a young enlisted woman soldier who was raped in her trailer by two men who broke in at night remembers her only thought being, “Am I going to get in trouble?”

Their experiences are shocking — they’re worse than anything you can imagine. But the words also resonate. Like the mean tweets on my phone every day (“Hope nobody hires you, Skank!”), they have the power to wound, destroy and silence women. Whoever said, “words can never hurt you” didn’t hear these words: the broker whose coworkers called her such vulgar names I can’t print them here; the popular executive who became an “agitator” when she reported a colleague to Human Resources; the woman whose harasser defended himself by saying, “You think I’d hit that?”; the young girl whose nickname was “Bat Sh—t”—for “bat sh—t crazy.”

Ugly stuff.

Repeatedly in my conversations with women, they used the term “old boys’ club” to describe their work environments. It’s a notion I thought was retired long ago. But no: there’s the old boys’ club in movie production, which we’ve now started to uncover, the old boys’ club in banking, the old boys’ club in retail, the old boys’ club in hospital administration. It exists in Congress, in the military, in scientific research, in the restaurant industry, and in law enforcement — the references are across the board. I started to wait for it when I conducted interviews — the moment when the term “old boys’ club” would show up. It happened almost every time.

We all know that it’s a “man’s world” in certain work environments, but the culture exists even in industries that are traditionally geared to women and families, such as retail, nursing and food services. A 2016 study published in the Harvard Business Review noted the insidious nature of a male-dominated work culture, saying:

Some men use the subjugation of women as a way to relate to other men and prove their masculinity, while reinforcing women’s lower status. At the same time, women who want to be part of the high-status group may play along with sexual harassment because they do not want to be further alienated from the high-status group (men). Women may even start to adopt the same behaviors as men to fit in and be ‘one of the guys.’ This creates an irony that women may be ignoring or down-playing sexual harassment to gain access to the ‘boys’ club’ while men are using sexual harassment to keep women out.

This analysis reveals the circular trap in which women often find themselves when they try to thrive in male-dominated environments. Changing the culture of harassment is not a simple choice between being strong and being weak, or getting along versus standing up for yourself. Time and again, I have been blown away by the courage many women express in demanding to be heard and fighting for respect in their workplaces. Against unbelievable odds — shame, retaliation, even lost jobs and careers — women are refusing to take it anymore. They are on the front lines of a long war. They are breaking the silence.

Adapted from the book BE FIERCE: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back by Gretchen Carlson. Copyright © Gretchen Carlson by Center Street. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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