“the boy’s club fallacy”

What I’m about to describe comes from some young men I like a lot and generally admire. It wouldn’t cross my mind to call them sexist, and the fact that each has employed the fallacy, leads me to worry that its sexism may be quite unobvious, at least to people living a privileged life. Indeed, in each form I didn’t recognize the fallacy as quickly as I would have liked to do. In my opinion, it can be quite damaging to diversity.

Two versions:

(1) my not picking her (for a student position) was not sexist, since I don’t know her at all. But I do know the other (male) candidate, admire his work, etc. So I picked him.

(2) He didn’t call on you (after calling on 7 men) because you were the only woman with her hand up and (1) the grad students we asked him to call on were all men; (2) The second male person was a very good friend of his; (3) The next male person was on the search committee…
And so on.

I take each of these to claim, in effect, that the decider has relationships that give him a reason to pick a or the men, while he has no reason to pick the woman. And so he doesn’t pick her. Women so often start out as outsiders, and this argument can further that dismal status.

My claim that the first was problematic was on email, and it was not well received. A senior male philosopher wanted to know what better grounds for his selection could he have had.

There may have been much more to say in each of these cases, and I don’t want to construe either in terms of the speakers’ personalities. In fact, I would expect each to avoid recognizable sexism. What I’d love to hear is your reactions.

26 thoughts on ““the boy’s club fallacy”

  1. Didn’t Marilyn Frye cover this exact kind of problem in “Sexism”? They seem to be making the same mistake in viewing sexism as a matter of an individual decision to take sex as relevant where it is not which Frye rejects as a definition of sexism in the paper.

    Isn’t the old store owner only hiring whites because the clientele is racist example relevant here? What better reason for hiring one potential employee over another in a sales environment could an employer have than the fact that the one of them will better please the clientele and likely make more sales? And yet, everyone can see the difficulty with the reasoning applied to that case, no?

  2. “He’s part of the ol’ boys’ network (that’s why I know him). She isn’t (that’s why I don’t know her). What better grounds for his selection could I have?
    Who ARE these people?

  3. There may be sexism in the first case, but it doesn’t strike me as the main failing there. Anyone in a position to make such appointments should make it their business to be familiar with the interested and relevant candidates.

    A similar case benefitting a woman might be less bad, but only marginally so. Either seems a dereliction of duty.

  4. In (1), are we supposed to be assuming that the reason that the prof knows the woman and not the man is because of a boy’s club (as Adele suggests)? Obviously there could be other reasons (eg it is her first semester and he took 7 classes with the prof)

  5. Yeah, it’s hard to tell (about the first case) whether it’s sexist or not; it depends on a lot more factors we don’t know about.
    Maybe the position is open to every student at the university, so it would be absurd to expect the prof to be familiar with every eligible candidate. Maybe the prof *only* knows male students, in which case obviously he should do something about it. And so on.

  6. Maybe what’s most worth considering here is the suggestion that not every case in which a man receives some benefit and a woman does not can be fairly regarded as an instance of sexism, particularly in the absence of any explanation as to precisely what is supposed to be sexist about the actions of those involved.

  7. Just wanted to note my experience in one philosophy department: the male professors were very chummy with the male students but mostly seemed to keep their distance from me and other women (there was at least one exception, which I really appreciated). I noticed this behavior mainly from the younger male professors I worked with. I don’t think they realized what that looked like from my perspective, and indeed I suspect that insofar as they thought about it at all, they thought they had better not get too friendly with me for fear that I would take it the wrong way (would shaking hands really have been that strange? I don’t know). I think this is relevant to (1), and I wish I had some suggestions.

  8. In the Netherlands Marieke van den Brink investigated the procedures to elect new professors. She came across the same mechanism, this sounds very much like the results from her study. White males looked around, saw a lot of white males in their network, and approached those white males through all kinds of personal channels and unofficial headhunter strategies. Women never entered the picture. Learn more about ms Van den Brink’s research here:

  9. Point number (1) looks to me like a general point applying to any in-group.

    The boys’ club is one instance, but probably much more common when we have very small pools of candidates (as with the studentship example Anne posted). You need a pretty small pool in order to make it practical to claim that being male provides this sort of advantage. If 50 men apply for one position, being male isn’t providing much of an advantage to individuals.

    When talking about larger pools of candidates, I’d imagine an even more common instance of (1) is the following case of pedigree bias on the job market: my not picking candidate 1 [from a lower tier institution] for the interview was not an instance of bias, since I don’t know her/him [and her/his adviser] at all. But I do know Candidate 2 [from a highly ranked institution], admire her/his work, etc. So I picked Candidate 2.

  10. Jarrod: Perhaps you can provide the explanation? My tone was rude, but I’m genuinely curious to hear the answer. What is the basis for making accusations of sexism in situations like these? What is it, precisely, that is sexist here, and according to what definition of sexism?

  11. Anon: Maybe you could try reading some of the comments in the thread? #10 & #11 are the most recent ones that answer your questions…

    Matt: I don’t think I understand your point. What is the difference between having 1 man and 1 woman up for a position and the man being considered more highly on the basis of sexism, and having 50 men and 50 women up for a position and all the men being considered more highly on the basis of sexism? Each individual man still has the same advantage over 50% of the field.

  12. Jarrod: The original thread topic, I take it, was to discuss the applicability and boundaries of Anne’s cases. I proposed one boundary for the first one: size. The difference between the two cases you raise is this: the former (with 2 candidates) is a case of sexism that matches Anne’s case quite well and the latter (with 100 candidates) is still sexism, but of a different sort.

    If you’ve got 100 candidates for one position, and 50 of them are male, they aren’t all going to benefit from the sort of sexism Anne describes. Anne’s case was one where the evaluator gives a bonus to the guy because he personally knows the guy’s work. Unless the evaluator somehow knows the work of all 50 guys, there are going to be lots of guys who aren’t going to benefit from that sort of sexism. So, no, it is not the case that “each individual man still has the same advantage over 50% of the field.” At least, they don’t have that particular sort of advantage. Maybe they have other advantages.

  13. Thanks for the clarification

    I don’t think the kind of sexism that is taking place in (1) requires that ALL candidates who are males receive the benefit. If we adjust the first case and imagine there are three people, the smart “boy’s club” male, the smart “outsider” female, and the slack-jawed Jarrod, we don’t have to assume that Jarrod is receiving the advantage of having his work known in order to say a boy’s club kind of sexism is taking place, surely? After all, Jarrod skips/fails all his classes, and so of course the professor is not going to be aware of his work, he doesn’t have any! Pretty much ever instance of this kind of sexism requires that the accepted candidate has some qualifications that other dudes don’t have, but that shouldn’t prevent us from saying that this kind of sexism is taking place.

  14. On further thought: I am also unclear as to why it is considered impossible that the evaluator stands in some special relation to all 50 male candidates (made available by sexism). Even being called on more in class could result in some discrimination of the type described in (1). Or maybe I am off my rocker now c:

  15. Jarrod: #10 is a report from someone other than the person who wrote the post to which we’re replying about the differences in how male professors conducted themselves towards the male and female graduate students in their department. #11 cites and summarizes a study about how male professors overlook women when electing new professors because those women lie outside their “networks.” If either of these replies answers my question, then I must be missing something important. Again, I’m asking: what is sexist about the actions of the people involved in the situation described in the original post, and on what definition of sexism?

  16. Definitions of sexism tend to be contentious, I believe, but I think we need at least to have one or more women treated unfairly – e.g., not having access o things that guys of equal talent have access to. And, I’d argue, and have recently, those deciding the distribution have power the women don’t.

    If anything near that is OK, then the woman who is ignored because not known, is experiencing sexism. That is, those who make the decisions have more power than she, and, unless being well known is really a relevant characteristic, her being ignored is not fair.

  17. I should add, they are treated unfairly in part because of their gender. So we’d suppose the decider would want to see the aplications from men he doesn’t know, or some such thing.

    But, as many people have pointed out, the case is not fully described, so it is questionable that we can judge it.

    Nonetheless, it at least has the idea that one can explain one’s decision by referencing the boys’ club.

  18. Just what I was looking for. Much appreciated. Defining all your terms may not always be possible, but attempting to do so reliably turns up interesting questions that might otherwise go unasked.

  19. (I echo the first commenter’s Frye reference.)

    One thing I find striking about the first case is how awful yet banal it is even if you remove the gender issue: 1) it’s very common for benefits in to be distributed based on personal affinity and 2) this screws people. When the benefit in question is a job, then it seems that the burden is much higher to try to transcend affinity based selection. When you’re in a situation when some group has been systematically disadvantaged, you have an even stronger duty to overcome affinity based selection (which is highly likely to be corrupted).

    None of this is new or unknown. I think anyone in a position to dispense jobs should know this sort of thing. So, prima facie, the “I know him/don’t know her” rationale fails at two levels. a) It’s first order discriminatory (even if there was no discriminatory intent per se), and b) it’s a second order failure to not be on guard for unintended (and not subtle!) first order issues.

  20. Yes! The hiring committees I am privy to don’t seem to be aware of this broader understanding of how their decisions can end up being biased because of their ignorance of the deeper and more widespread exclusionary practices. One can see this dynamic, similarly, in relation not only to gender and race, but class as well. For example, one person has more travel experiences, or partially funded post-docs, and so on. It looks as though they are the more ambitious and merit more esteem because of this, because those are the sorts of things that we focus on and have valued. On the other hand, we are supposedly being biased when we seek to know more about the background of an individual, when in fact knowing that background may reveal a different manifestation of ambition, and qualities that equally merit esteem. This is true even when we are looking at and comparing only women, or only women of a certain culture or race. Not only are one’s opportunities, and thereby, economic future, mitigated by social patterns related to gender and race and/or culture, or even sexual orientation and disability, but class, on its own, is a powerful factor in the unintentional and perhaps unaware disadvantaging of some people.

    So the obvious social factor(s) will be those which one can “see”, but there may be other factors, such as class, involved in the individual’s not being known or not holding prominent positions within institutions. The whole idea of a snowball effect of disadvantage comes to mind. Add to that the idea that one has somehow not “made it” if they are not in a tenure-track position at a four-year college or research university, and one gains a greater understanding of the experience of some of our most talented thinkers, who more often than not work as adjuncts, lecturers and teachers at community colleges, where they very rarely get to use their most advanced and specialized knowledge of their training. It reminds me of Irena Klepfisz’s essay in Dreams of an Insomniac about having both a broad and specialized education and yet ending up working as an office worker. I actually love it when she asks herself What makes her so special? Didn’t the office workers also have their own dreams and purposes that they have to put aside in order to make money, even if they are not as broadly or specially educated as she? It gets to the heart of the myth of a pure meritocracy– with which we seem to love to delude ourselves.

  21. Truly disgusting. I see the author doesn’t understand what a fallacy is, nor would it seem what sexism is.

    The first case “mysteriously” disappears if you replace the man and woman with two PEOPLE. The issue was that the man hired the other man because of his knowledge of that person, the woman being a stranger. The EXACT same thing happens if he knew the woman and the man was a stranger. It’s his own personal experience and social bias, NOT sexism.

    The second case applies to the same thing, even if they were all woman and one man or all men and one last man.

    With the facts presented, it isn’t sexist. In order for it to be sexist, parameters need to be introduced that didn’t exist. “But, oh, we all know that in reality it would be…” holds as much weight as if it ISN’T sexist. However default overrules this on every count as it’s a theoretical scenario. So the only relation to the subject is what is presented.

    Demanding something be sexist is as ridiculous as seeing MiB helicopters everywhere or thinking saying “Bloody Mary” will do anything. It’s in YOUR head. In theory the scenarios are not sexist at all. In REALITY we base the claim of “sexism” on factors that prove that claim when PRESENTED them, not when made up from nothing..

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