Resist the Old Boys and Their Ways

Hugo Schwyzer argues that the gender preference of the seasoned elite fosters leniency and protection in the name of loyalty.

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 he reaches a certain point in his 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 this 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 over 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.

—Photo Larry Johnson/Flickr

About Hugo Schwyzer

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 website


  1. I note that Mr Schwyzer fails to mention his own history with and benefits from Old Boy Networks.

    I have been concerned for some time about GMP and developments, whilst also maintaining my focus on Equality and Abuse and Conflict Transformation. The following was brought to my attention recently and I have, as a “Meddling Rational Archivist”, been checking details. It is not retroactive shaming – but the result of a google search that brought up matters.

    Mr Schwyzer wrote about the issue on his own website under the title of “Stop before you become the ‘dirty old man’”: a remembered morsel of advice”, Posted on April 9, 2011

    Mr Schwyzer openly discusses his sexual history with students – even stating:

    “In the fall of 1996, I was 29. Three years into my teaching career, my reputation as an energetic lecturer was quickly being eclipsed by rumors of my sleeping with students. Most of the rumors were true. I was reckless to the point of stupidity, showing little interest in protecting the job I loved. I was trying to get sober and failing. I stashed drugs in the same file cabinets that held student papers, gave lectures with booze in my bloodstream. I had sex with students on my office desk. ”

    He then discusses not how he was dealt with under relevant policy, but through an off the record chat with an older colleague called Don. Mr Schwyzer states:

    “One afternoon, my colleague “Don” stopped by my office. Don taught psychology, and was one of our most senior faculty members, pushing sixty and getting ready to retire. He asked to chat, and I offered him a seat. He wasted no time: “Man”, he said, “you’ve got to be discreet.” Don told me what he’d heard and what he’d seen. “You’ve got friends”, he said, “and we’ve got your back”

    It seems that Mr Schwyzer has an odd historical relationship with Old Boy Networks in his workplace – an ambivalence to Male Privilege that he has benefited from – and an odd association with “Rape Culture” and how that relates to his students and his own teacher’s desk.

    Mr Schwyzer “implies” that his conduct was linked to Drug and Alcohol misuse, which also implies it is common to all people with similar issues. That is not correct.

    I note that Mr Schwyzer actually failed to say that his historical conduct was wrong, or that he regretted his conduct. There is only implied contrition which only comes from the fact that he posted on the matter at all. That pattern of implication over actual words is a recurrent trope in Mr Schwyzer’s writing.

    He allows readers to make many assumptions about him, and those are invariably on the generous side which is people’s nature. It does not mean it is his nature.

    I note that a number of voices in the world of Feminism and Academia have been critical of his blyth attitudes to his own conduct – not only historically – but how he has skirted over issues whilst even being supposedly confessional. There is content via all Social Media Outlets including the voices of men who self identify as feminist.

    I have to wonder why so many are so uncritical of Mr Schwyzer’s opinions, when he so openly makes public comment that brings them into question and ignores so much?

  2. Peter Houlihan says:

    So men shouldn’t be allowed to talk as they would amongst themselves around female coworkers, but they are criticised for not letting said coworkers in on their little drinking club?

    Theres a massive contradiction there, and it doesn’t surprise me that fictional walls are thrown up between fictional Delilah and her workmates: its being explicitly stated that shes not to be treated as an equal.

    True equality has to come both ways, the workplace should become, and is becoming, friendlier to women. But if women and feminist law are hostile to the workplace, well, I think its pretty obvious what the result will be.

    As for old boys, they’re all old and they’ll be gone within a decade or two. Its a relic of a past age thats no more than a fadeing memory being used to prop up patriarchy theory. Companies want to make money, and they make less money by keeping women out.

  3. My personal experience working in a large government organization is that the OBN still exists to some small degree but it has been cut off at the roots and the few leaves left are rapidly wilting. Any formal mentoring/professional development that includes males is strictly gender neutral. There are several formal and informal mentoring/professional development/networking activities specifically for women, even though women make up more than half of the government workforce and are rapidly achieving parity in the few remaining activities that have a larger numbers of males in management functions.

    • Exactly. How powerful pervasive can a so-called OBN be when the boys are in an ever shrinking minority? Not only are men the minority of workers, they are the minority in positions of power and authority. That is, the majority of supervisors and managers are women. Which proves this is another thinly veiled attempt to demonize males en masse.

  4. Hugo makes many good points in this post on structural changes that ought to take place in terms of attaining more gender equality. But wanting the attention of an ‘old boy’ can be more complicated. My ex was abused as a young boy by his pastor for years. Same kind of turning a blind eye to the abuse by this pastor’s colleagues and supervisors as was the case for Sandusky’s colleagues and supervisors.

    But my ex didn’t want to be a part of a team. Like the many boys who fell prey to the abuse of Sandusky after encountering him through the foster home Second Mile, which Sandusky founded to help troubled boys, my ex wanted the attention of a man. He was looking, he told me repeatedly, for a father figure.

    The pastor who abused my ex was finally charged with abuse by another victim (and then several others came out too), the abusive pastor was sentenced, and my ex received some ‘compensation’ and years of therapy. As far as I know, he’s still in therapy. And he’s still longing for a (more attentive) father figure (than his own, even as much as he still loves his own father).

  5. Apparently the author would prefer that men seek the approval of women rather than other men. And I’m sure radical feminists would agree.

    Real men, however, know better than to play that game.

    • It seems the article challenges the right of males to bond with other co-workers and superiors in after hour settings.

  6. I would like an explanation for why my comment was deleted. I used no profanity and made no personal attacks. Are comments critical of feminist positions banned by this site? Or are any comments remotely critical of Hugo Schwyzer’s articles disallowed?

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      You can disagree with the ideas in a particular post, of course. But to call out your disapproval of the author him or herself, or The Good Men Project and what we are doing here, will get your comment disallowed. If you think we should be running posts that have different views than the ones we run, please submit an article yourself, or have someone you know who writes about those topics submit to us. The comments are not the place to write sweeping, generalized critiques of either the author or this forum.

      • Any response to my article proposal, Lisa? It’s been a couple of weeks without any reply yea or nay.

      • I criticized the nature the article itself, as well as the general nature of the author’s articles, which naturally correspond. Again, no personal attacks. If this is disallowed by the Good Men Project, so be it.

        Yet, I can’t help but notice that the comment section of WF Price’s article here was not held to such a strict standard…

  7. Power begets and protects power, that’s the problem

  8. The blogger conveniently neglected to mention that the judge who let Sandusky out with absolutely no bail money paid and allowed him to stay within 20 yards of a playground is a woman,  evidently not part of his OBN.  Or, if there is an OBN, women are evidently members in good standing. But, don’t key those pesky facts get in your way. Apparently, when a person is bent on yet another fact-free male-bashing attack, facts are best left out.

  9. – If a number of people form a group beased on a bond, then it’s going to tough if not impossible for an outsider to join in.

    You even said it yourself, men in the work environment are hesitant to interact with woman for fear of harassment allegations.

    – Yes people become mroe friendly when you engauge them in a conversation of a topic they interest in.

    – There’s nothing wrong with a man wanting to hang out with a group of all man, same goes for woman.
    We hang out with people of the same gender because we have more in common with them.

    • Julie Gillis says:

      Nothing wrong with hanging out with people we like and have things in common with in social settings, but what I see there is there are formal routes to mentorship, job advancements and etc, and informal routes. The “boys” or “girls” clubs are informal routes which often influence the formal ones.

      In one singular environment, no problem, but if it is a systemic (even accidentally) dynamic….well, it’s easy to see how boys clubs promote men over women. Or back in the day, whites over blacks (maybe that’s still the case).

      You wind up with dominant systems supporting their own dominance. Is that fair? That’s the point of the article I think, to look at how systems could change if they were more inclusive.

      • Unless that system involves pushing someone up the ladder who’s less qualified or pushing someone down the ladder cause they’re not apart of the group, i don’t see the problem with it.

        • Also if being apart of the group means involving yourself in illegal activities.

        • Julie Gillis says:

          I suppose that sounds good in theory right? But if a group is excluding a perfectly suited candidate from the informal structures…and another good candidate (qualified) is promoted, didn’t that first candidate not get an equal opportunity to compete? No matter the gender or race, I know these things happen. Power approves power. Leveling a playing field seems wise to me to make sure you are getting the widest variety of candidates possible. Monocultures breed themselves out.

  10. Since both Hugo and Lori are relying on their personal experience, it seems like the world of academia has a serious problem with sexism. Which actually is somewhat expected. The most liberal institutions are usually the most hypocritical in their beliefs versus their actions. And why is there such a reliance in academia on “mentoring” to achieve career advancement? That kind of dependance seems…creepy. My experience in the corporate world is that those types of relationships are rare these days. Thank God.

    • I understand why you are making this comment. I suppose I could have told the stories of female friends and relatives who are doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen, and who say the same things and tell similar stories, but yes, I chose to stick to relating my own first-hand experiences. They are not unique to academia, though.

      • From your and Hugo’s description, they are common in academia, which in the corporate sector they are not, at least not anymore. Though to be fair to academia, your grad school years ended decades ago, right? Perhaps those “mentoring” relationships have waned there as well due to the very issues Hugo wrote about.

    • Julie Gillis says:

      You mean there aren’t any mentoring relationships in the corporate sector? That seems surprising to me.

      • “You mean there aren’t any mentoring relationships in the corporate sector?”
        – see below:
        “…those types of relationships are rare these days”
        That doesn’t mean they don’t exist at all, just RARELY.

  11. Everything you say here has been true in my experience–throughout my education and in various jobs. I’m sure there will be plenty of commenters who will knee-jerk deny it. In grad school I had to switch departments (and careers) because the male professors (all were male) harassed the female students and gave higher grades to the ones who slept with them, while simultaneously selectively mentoring the male students. At one of my jobs, I could not get mentored to rise up the ladder the way I saw other men at my level getting automatically groomed for leadership, and when I eventually got up the courage to ask my boss why this was happening, I was told, “I had no idea you wanted mentoring.” When I was on the admissions committee at MIT, it was a constant fight to admit more women because the male professors who rotated onto the committee constantly tried to sabotage those efforts, directly stating “we like our classes the way they are–mostly white and Asian males.” I could give even more examples. The “good ole boys” thing is alive and well. As a woman, I sometimes felt that I was given a virtual membership card to the good ole boys club in that the right words were said to me, and the card let me in the door, but once in the room, no one treated me like the men. I was marginalized. I had my nose pressed to the glass, watching the men take care of each other and help each other succeed. In was systemic. It still is…but not always. Women are making their way in some careers and in greater numbers. But, this is still a huge problem. Thanks for naming it.


  1. […] I wrote last month that men should do all they could to avoid becoming part of the “old boy networks” that are still so pervasive in both business and academia. In the old boy networks, senior men mentor guys whom they see as protégés; women are excluded due to rank sexism. But as both Claire and Jackie make clear, the reluctance of many men to mentor young women has less to do with a belief in female inferiority and more to do with fear of sexual impropriety. […]

  2. […] piece was originally posted on the Good Men Project. Republished with […]

  3. […] can appreciate Hugo Schwyser’s thoughts here regarding the “old boys’ network (OBN).” Being very fair-skinned, many assume I’m […]

  4. […] Penn State scandal, my contribution for the Good Men Project’s business ethics package is up: Resist the Old Boys. […]

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