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In the fourth episode of the NBC mockumentary/cringe comedy darling Parks and Recreation, the series’ main character, Leslie Knope (played by SNL alum Amy Poehler), infiltrates a group of her male coworkers who get together and drink in their office building’s courtyard every Tuesday after work. The episode, titled “Boy’s Club,” follows the hard-working, honest, and almost painfully earnest Leslie—Deputy Director of the Parks Department in the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana—as she pushes her way into the Boy’s Club one Tuesday evening.
On property paid for by taxpayer dollars—Pawnee City Hall—Leslie’s male counterparts regularly and openly drink alcohol. Knowing this is against the rules but too overwhelmed by her desire to be accepted as a member of the club (due to the city’s history of male-dominated leadership and a crush she has on one of her male colleagues), Leslie joins the guys in the courtyard.
“Politics is full of boy’s clubs, formal and informal,” Leslie tells the documentary crew in a solo scene. As she gestures to a wall full of portraits of men, she continues, “Behind me are all the members of the city council over the past 30 years, and every day, as a woman, I have to walk past this wall of men. It can be very upsetting.”
Leslie breaks a couple more rules as she sees through her infiltration of the Boy’s Club. When the beer runs out in the courtyard, she opens a gift basket that exceeds the value city employees are allowed to accept in order to obtain wine and keep the party going. While she’s hangin’ with the guys, the Parks & Rec department’s underage intern gets her hands on some of the wine—and consumes it in a video she posts online.
Ever honest and earnest, Leslie admits to breaking the rules in an email to everyone at city hall the following morning. A series of related fallouts—the intern’s online video, her boss’s wrath, a disciplinary hearing—sinks her into a humiliating and ever-deepening hole, one she desperately attempts to dig her way out of.
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Leslie’s reprieve comes only when her boss, the openly anti-government Parks Director Ron Swanson, gruffly demands an end to the city’s lengthy disciplinary hearings—brought on by Leslie’s own admissions and the intern’s online drinking—about Leslie’s behavior. Played by Nick Offerman, Ron’s character throughout the series is hyperbolically and grossly masculine, if at times endearing.
Leslie’s painful disciplinary process ends only when her male boss comes to the rescue; even then, she gets a letter in her personnel file.
At no point do we see the guys from the Boy’s Club disciplined for their regular consumption of alcohol at city hall.
This was a bizarre turn of events, considering that within the first couple moments of the series premiere, Leslie tells the documentary crew, “Government isn’t just a boys’ club anymore. Women are everywhere. It’s a great time to be a woman in politics...Leslie Knope’s stopping for no one.”
If government is no longer a boys’ club, as Leslie says in the very first episode, then why weren’t the members of Pawnee City Hall’s boys’ club called in for disciplinary hearings? After all, Leslie made her intentions to infiltrate their club clear in her day-after confession email, and Ron Swanson even told the disciplinary committee that the boys’ club meets every week in the courtyard to drink and hang out.
True to the genre of cringe comedy, over the course of seven seasons, Leslie faces countless obstacles her male counterparts don’t. She’s forced out of achievements she worked tirelessly to obtain, while her toxic and ludicrous male counterparts sit on their laurels, smirking at the unfair treatment meted out to Leslie. She and her female peers are often sexually harassed by men who are never disciplined for their behavior. One notable, serial sexual harasser and abuser of his government connections is the show’s character Tom Haverford, the Parks Department admin played by Aziz Ansari, who has come under fire in real life for his alleged sexual misconduct on a date. Adding insult to injury, Leslie also faces typical questions that men are never asked: Why isn’t she married? Why doesn’t she have children? Does she even care about her family, or does she only care about her career?
Her enthusiasm for public service is frequently berated and even punished. The series does a painfully fantastic job of chronicling Leslie’s obstacles as a woman who learns, time and again, that her hopeful view of women in politics in the series premiere is not only untrue, but often flat-out discouraged, denied, and treated with open hostility. The show is saved by Leslie’s indomitable enthusiasm in the face of countless emotional beatings and her eventual, hard-won successes.
Nine years after the “Boy’s Club” episode, has much changed in the real world?
Doesn’t seem like it: a simple Google search of “boys’ clubs at work” yields dozens of articles, opinion pieces, and stories about “good ol’ boys’ clubs” and how to handle them. Even a cursory scan of these pieces indicates women are still battling for their place at work and contending with male-dominated workplaces and cultures.
In the good, if misleadingly titled Forbes piece, “The End of the Boys’ Club,” tech company CEO Tom Gillis laments the staggeringly low number of women in the tech business — an industry that’s supposed to represent “everything new, but in many ways it’s still an old boys’ club.” Gillis proffers that radical steps must be taken to change this, and the tech industry needs to step in to make opportunities in the tech industry more plentiful for women.
However, simply getting more women into an industry that’s so male-dominated, like high-tech, isn’t enough. In nearly every industry vertical (except maybe education and nursing), women find themselves outnumbered by men. This extends from modestly paid government jobs to the well-paid and opportunity-rich jobs in the high-tech industry.
In a piece called “7 Ways to Excel in a Male-Dominated Workplace” on the career advice website themuse.com, investment banker Jane Fang gives seven “practical tips for thriving in the office—even when the gender ratio isn’t in your favor.” And what’s #2 on Fang’s list? “Beer is for Bonding,” in which she advises women to bond with their male coworkers by drinking with them outside of work. (Perhaps she never saw the fateful episode of Parks and Recreation in which this tactic goes terribly awry?) She also advises women to avoid being too easily offended; in her line of work, she became a trusted colleague after allowing men to be themselves without having to worry whether she’d report them to HR. In an appended note, she says “there is a line” (although she doesn't explain what or where that line is) and that “sexual harassment is never OK.”
We happen to agree with Fang, however, her advice does not come without potential criticism. It’s not always safe for women to drink with groups of men, and not everyone is a drinker, so “Beer is for Bonding” not only potentially excludes those who do not drink, but it’s also potentially dangerous. If you choose to drink, know your limitations and don’t be that girl who gets drunk. If you do not drink, order an alcohol-free drink. The fact that you are joining the group for bonding is often sufficient for your male counterparts. Advising women — particularly young women, new to the workforce, who read this article because they’re genuinely seeking guidance — to avoid being too easily offended and to let men be themselves, may in fact result in women letting too much bad behavior go unreported at work. Use your common sense and choose your battles but don’t be afraid to speak up (gently, if possible) if comments are particularly offensive.
Let’s go back to Leslie’s desire to be accepted by the Boy’s Club. Was it because she wanted to be considered equally tough and successful and viewed having the same leadership qualities as her male counterparts? Did she simply want to be liked and respected by her male counterparts? Did she want to hang with the guys because she enjoyed their company? If you work in a male dominated environment, all of the foregoing can be true. What is most important, however, is gaining the support of your male colleagues if you want to succeed in a male dominated environment. That is a fact.
In a Psychology Today article, “Women and the Good Ole Boys Club,” Dr. Audrey Nelson discusses the necessity of women having male networkers and male mentors to get ahead in business. This advice is important for your career if you are in a male dominated environment and learning how to communicate with your male colleagues can make or break your career. We agree 100% with Nelson. You will need the advice and guidance of men and you can obtain this support without compromising your integrity. Nelson advises women not to whine when they’re left out of opportunities at work, going on to say, “The good ol’ boys club needs to know when it crosses the line. Set boundaries and address issues from a position of strength, not weakness. Don’t say what they did wrong (whining and negative); say what you want them to do (positive).” We agree. Ask to be included and explain how your contribution and participation will make the opportunity at work more efficient and successful.
Nelson’s advice centers on retraining male coworkers with positive guidance. This will get women in the workplace farther and garner their male coworkers’ respect—and encourage them to be more supportive of their female colleagues. Allowing men to be themselves with redirection from you as their female co-worker when bad behavior occurs may make for more trusting working relations. The men may feel less worried about including you into their inner circle and are more likely to help you with your career (including providing networking opportunities, promoting your abilities with senior executives and bosses, and recommending you for promotion).
We know from our own long careers, as well as from the careers of other women, that remaining silent or laughing with the boys as they engage in workplace misconduct is sometimes how a woman gets in good with the boys’ club. However, it’s tricky: saying nothing or laughing along may be good for your workplace relationship with the guys, but it’s also condoning, if not outright approving of, their bad behavior. There is no single good answer. If you silently jot down the instances of bad behavior and turn them into human resources, or if you openly confront the guys about their behavior, you risk getting shunned from the group and, probably, from advancement and inclusion in actual work opportunities (that should be decided on merit and not on being one of the guys, but we know this isn’t how it works — yet). Being gentle yet firm, and employing humor, may be the best course of action; this still requires women to smile through their discomfort while letting the guys know they’re being disrespectful and reminding them they might get in trouble if the wrong person overheard their remarks or witnessed their behavior.
As women, we have to draw a firm line to create a boundary of respect, and we have to let men know they’re crossing every time they do it. Until our culture, both in and out of the workplace, adopts more equality-based, progressive approaches to having both men and women in the Sandbox of the working environment, we have to find a way to navigate the Boys’ Clubs to benefit our careers.
Finding the courage to let men know gently (and in certain cases with humor) when they are crossing the line is a good first step.