We had a panel discussion on campus last night about negotiating the Catholic heritage of the institution, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet as a college for women (who still make up the majority of the student body). Most of the audience last night, too, were women. The panel, however, was entirely made up of men. My department chair, Kate, was the first to bring this up at the end, which I applauded. But I was struck by the comment one of the panelists made that, "It's just part of a conversation we [a fellow panelist] have been having for years."
I used to think the "old boy's network" was insidious and deliberate. Some may be, but I learned over the years that largely they're just like that: friendships. At heart it's a good thing: you help out your friends, you work with your friends, you share with your friends. It's a natural enough impulse. That's the way that this kind of thing gets going, for example on Twitter where people like @Glinner and @serafinowicz and @edgarwright all help publicize each other not as a deliberate marketing ploy, but simply because they're pals.
The problem, of course, is that few men are friends with women in the same way. I think it's changing (I hope it is!) and there are always exceptions (I have a lot of male friends), but certainly in the past men were often not comfortable being friends with women because of the potential problem of sex (if he wanted it and she didn't, or he didn't and she did, etc.). In the past -- and in current films -- women existed only as sex and not as people (<-- feminism: the radical notion that women are people). I kind of hope that the very boring trend of "father" centered films is a last gasp of that mind set. Maybe we can move beyond the pervasiveness of the old boy network.
But even if they're not deliberate or insidious, the effects are. I often tell people about my moment at a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Status of Women at the Harvard Medical and Dental Schools, seated at a conference table in Countway Library when our chair asked, "How can we make the atmosphere more welcoming to women?" I looked around the dark paneled room, where we were surrounded by oil paintings of the old patriarchs of the medical school and I just laughed.
What starts as friendship often ends in compromise: as a writer I'm thinking of anthologies filled with stories from drinking buddies even if they're not particularly good. I also think of Comedy Central, where the old boy network reigns supreme, even with very untalented people -- girls are okay if they're pretty. It's difficult to dismantle the system, because it springs from a good thing, friendship. But dismantle it, we must.
C'mon -- let's all be friends!