The Old Boy's Club: Protection, not just preference

Content warning: sexual assault, harassment

The term “old boys club” pops up a lot in discussions of academic careers, especially when we talk about the proverbial ivory towers of elite institutions. Usually, when we talk about the old boys club, people are talking about the power of connections: the ways in which networking can overcome a fraught job market in which fresh post-docs and early career researchers far out number the available academic posts. We often hear that “it’s who you know, not what you know” that will ensure success and security in this sphere. In this sense – if we ignore for a moment the vast gender disparities in many academic disciplines – the power of the old boys club is gender-neutral. It’s true that there are fewer women in senior academic positions, but (theoretically, at least) the advantages of networking are not restricted to male academics.

However, old boys club culture is not just about making connections. It is about protection. It’s a cliché that people protect their own, but a cliché for a reason: cover-ups of abuse have been exposed in politics, in the Church, in charitable organisations. The truth is that old boys club culture allows predatory men to be protected by their peers: networking is not just networking, it is shelter, and the academic sphere is no exception to this rule. At a conference I attended recently, I went to the hotel bar with some of the other speakers, where I overheard the tail-end of a conversation between two male academics, one in his late forties, and the other in his thirties. “You can’t afford a mistake like that,” the more senior was saying, “Not with all this ‘me too’ bullshit around.” His tone was earnest, as if giving advice on a presentation, and I was taken aback. Perhaps he had been making a joke of some kind – but what kind of a joke uses violence against women as a punchline?

Conferences and other events are supposed to be prime opportunities for PhD students and early career researchers to build the networks on which (we’ve been told) we’ll depend if we want to succeed in academia. Genuine connections are not made, however, in the brief small talk over coffee at registration. For that, you have to wait for the conference dinner, the drinks in the pub afterwards, when people finally relax a little and talk openly, give advice, exchange ideas. In this setting, though, old boys club culture comes into its own. It’s in the pub that a senior academic offers to read a young male researcher’s work for him, and then turns to me and says, “Take off your glasses, you look prettier without them.” As a young woman, I have a peculiar paradox to consider: I can step into an environment in which genuine connections with fellow academics are possible, but in which (particularly when the alcohol flows freely) they do not see me first and foremost as a fellow academic, but as a potential lay.

At the same recent conference, I was aggressively sexually harassed by a speaker twenty years older than me. When I stormed out of the bar, close to tears, another academic offered to walk me back to my room to make sure that I was alright. “I could see that you were uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to play the white knight and intervene,” he told me. The next day, as people were taking their seats for another day of presentations, Dr Anti-White-Knight walked in with the very man he had seen my altercation with, chatting affably. Until men in academia begin to inflict repercussions on their predatory peers – whether junior or senior – things will not change.

Not only does old boys club culture allow predatory men to escape social consequences for their actions, but it undermines institutional disciplinary systems. There is a growing awareness of the epidemic of sexual assault in UK universities. However, inside the academic bubble, with its propensity to protect the status quo, the likelihood that predators and abusers will see repercussions is still incredibly low. A few years ago, a close friend of mine was raped in halls by another student. When she reported the incident, she was discouraged from telling the police and told that the university machinery would deal with the problem internally. The university machinery (a committee of male fellows) dealt with it in the way they knew: they suppressed it, having interviewed the male student in question and decided that he must be telling the truth. They then accepted his application to stay on for a master’s degree. The old boys club continues to take on new members, who can slither onto the career ladder without any fear that they will be judged by their previous actions.

Of course it’s uncomfortable and difficult to disrupt the old boys club culture engrained in academic institutions, by reporting or socially detaching from these peers. Of course it can be awkward to intervene or call out inappropriate behaviour. These are all necessary measures, though, if we want to change the culture in academia. I’ve heard several academics defending the need for rigorous peer review before academic work is published, and strongly oppose the suggestion that this review system be changed to make publication easier. If academics were willing to subject the behaviour of their peers to the same kind of scrutiny as their manuscripts, academia could look like a very different place.

Teresa rows for the University of Southampton and in her spare time is doing a PhD in reproductive ethics. You can follow her on twitter here.


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