Behind closed doors!
Homosocial desire and
the academic boys club
Virginia Fisher and Sue Kinsey
HR & Leadership Group, Plymouth Business School, Plymouth University,
Purpose – The aim of this paper is to explore the nature and power of the academic boys club.
In many organisations, the political signiﬁcance of the boys club goes largely unremarked and
unacknowledged. Yet, the way that male colleagues intimately relate to each other, sometimes called
homosocial desire, is crucial to their success at gaining and retaining power at work.
Design/methodology/approach – Feminist, poststructuralist, ethnographic, qualitative, and
longitudinal data were collected over a ﬁve-year period from male and female academics in a
Findings – The boys club is still a powerful feature of British universities. Their apparent invisibility
shrouds the manner in which they can and do promote and maintain male interests in a myriad of
ways, including selection and promotion. These ﬁndings have resonances for all organisations.
Research limitations/implications – Researching the intimacies between male colleagues
requires time-intensive ﬁeld work and insider access to men interacting with each other.
Practical implications – Meaningful gender equality will not be achieved unless and until the more
sophisticated forms of female exclusion are revealed and deconstructed.
Originality/value – This research makes an unusual and crucial contribution to the study of gender,
men and masculinities by providing longitudinal, rich, detailed data, observing men at the closest of
quarters and then analysed by a feminist and poststructuralist gaze.
Keywords Boys club, Hegemonic masculinity, Homosocial desire, Invisibility, Masculinities
Paper type Research paper
In 2011, two popular Sky sports presenters were caught making misogynistic and sexist
comments about a female match ofﬁcial, when they thought their microphones were
switched off. Following this “scandal”, three senior Sky women lambasted the work
culture of Sky, describing the “blokey” vibe of its “lad’s club” (The Guardian, 2011).
The comments suggest a taken-for-granted and well-rehearsed shared narrative of
women’s inferiority among the male participants; but given football’s reputation for being
a bastion of sexism and misogyny, the only surprise about “Skygate” was that the events
were (unintentionally) revealed to the public gaze rather than remaining behind the closed
doors of the “locker room”. What might be more surprising is the existence of similarly
powerful “boys clubs” at most British universities, organisations which should and often
do lay claim to meritocratic principles and gender neutrality. Numerous researchers have
identiﬁed academia as an endemically homosocial gentleman’s club (Halsey, 1992;
Maddock and Parkin, 1993; Davies and Holloway, 1995; Morley and Walsh, 1995; Bird,
1996; Roper, 1996; Brooks, 1997; Morley, 1999; Hearn, 2001; Blackmore and Sachs, 2001;
Mavin and Bryans, 2002; Harley, 2003; Bagilhole, 2007; Kantola, 2008; Fisher, 2007, 2011;
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 28 October 2012
Revised 4 May 2013
8 July 2013
Accepted 1 October 2013
Gender in Management: An
Vol. 29 No. 1, 2014
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
van den Brink and Benschop, 2012). But it has been hard to demonstrate the nature
and operation of this boys club and its contribution to maintaining the dominance of men
and masculinities, in universities as in other organisations (Gregory, 2009; Mooney and
Ryan, 2009; Pesonen et al., 2009; Broadbridge, 2010; Knights and Tullberg, 2012). We use
the metaphor of the “boys club” to denote the shared discourses and practices amongst
men which institutionalise men’s dominance over women (Bird, 1996) but which remain
covert or are dissembled as harmless social interactions. Whilst the boys club
phenomenon is often mentioned in the context of gender research, its insidious and
powerful operation has received little scrutiny, and it is rarely deconstructed either as a
linguistic term or as a material phenomenon. Similarly, the homosocial desire
(Sedgwick, 1985; Roper, 1996), the often emotionally charged and intimate energy
which fuels the “chemistry” of these interactions is equally underexplored. We believe
that the boys club has received far less attention than its contribution to unfair sex
discrimination would suggest it should do for a number of reasons. First, historically
gender studies have concentrated primarily on womenas the central focus and it is only in
recent years that there has been a growth in research that has placed men and
masculinities under the research microscope (Collinson and Hearn, 1996; Kerfoot and
Whitehead, 1998; Martin, 2001; McDowell, 2001; Simpson, 2004). Second, as women’s
workplace representation and contribution has ostensibly increased, an “indignant”
discourse has emerged (evidenced particularly in this university case study) that the
increased visual presence of women means thatmen are being treated unfavourably (for a
discussion of this phenomenon in the UK higher education sector see Fisher (2007)). Third,
for many feminist researchers, there is an understandable fear that by focussing on men
and masculinities, women will yet again be excluded from mainstream research agendas
(Cockburn, 1991; McDowell, 2001). Finally, identifying and highlighting the centrality of
intimacies between male colleagues is time heavy and potentially risky research territory:
it is time heavy because it requires long periods of insider and ethnographic type
involvement in the ﬁeld, necessitating insider access to men interacting with one another
(in a relaxed manner). A woman researcher might ﬁnd such access more difﬁcult than a
man, whilst a male researcher might lack the awareness or motivation to do it or see it.
Similarly, a male researcher might not want to risk losing the “patriarchal dividend”
(Connell, 1995) through reporting on “insider activities”. As Whitehead (2000, p. 133)
observes, research into masculinity and gender encroaches onto the personal and
confronts our very identities as complex gendered beings, and “the feminist critique of
masculinity puts men – their behaviours, attitudes and practices – under the critical
spotlight. It is not surprising that it is ignored”. Gender in management research is rather
precarious and very far from being an established and secure area of endeavour in most
universities and business schools (Broadbridge and Hearn, 2008).
Aims, objectives and contribution to the study of women in management
It is the main aim of this paper to contribute to the breaking of silence (Collinson
and Hearn, 1996) about the often damaging performances of masculinities in the
workplace and in particular the signiﬁcance of the boy’s club. Connell (1995, p. 71)
[...] masculinity, to the extent that the term can be brieﬂy deﬁned at all, is simultaneously a
place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in
gender and the effects of these practices (our italics).
Following Connell’s observations we seek to reveal the places in which the boys club
exists and occurs; the practices in which men engage which constitute the boys club;
and the effects of the boys club for men, women and organisations. Whilst the
overarching aim of this paper is to explore and expose the phenomena of homosocial
desire and the boys club, three speciﬁc objectives ﬂow from this aim:
(1) To investigate manifestations of the boys club, its consequences, and the ways
in which women are excluded from those groups and activities.
(2) To identify the inﬂuence of the boys club on organisational decision making
such as selection, promotion and the construction of job roles and performance.
(3) To observe the key characteristics of male homosocial desire and the challenge
it presents to the notion of men as “rational/logical” entities.
This research makes an unusual and crucial contribution to the study of gender and
management, men and masculinities in higher education (and elsewhere) by providing
longitudinal, rich and detailed data, speciﬁcally applying a feminist and
poststructuralist gaze to observations of men’s interactions, and women’s experiences
of them, at the closest of quarters. It gives space to male academics, not to reinforce their
privileged position, but to name it as privileged. This is essential to challenge the claims
that issues of gender inequality have been “solved” and that the absence of women in
power is merely the result of individual (not gendered) choices because the system is fair
(Lewis and Simpson, 2010; Broadbridge and Simpson, 2011). The paper is organized as
follows. First, we develop the theoretical background, including a discussion of
hegemonic (and other) masculinities and the genesis of notions of homosocial desire in
the workplace. Second, we describe the organizational context and methodology of this
research. Third, we present the analysis of our ﬁndings, including observations of
critical incidents and the voices of the interview participants as they reﬂect upon the
meanings and performances of masculinities and male bonding. This section is
separated into two parts; which relate to research objectives one and two. Finally our
conclusion reviews the intended research aim and objectives and in particular, considers
the key characteristics of male homosocial desire as evidenced by this study.
Theoretical background: gender and masculinities in academia
Despite popular mainstream views, merely changing the numbers of women in academia
(the “add women and stir” solution) is not likely to change sex inequality in any
organisation, let alone universities (Martin, 1994; Ely, 1995). Gender discrimination
against women often takes relatively sophisticated and veiled forms which are difﬁcult to
identify and challenge. A particularly elusive aspect is the dominance and yet apparent
invisibility of masculinities. Masculinity is almost always invisible in shaping social
relations.Its signiﬁcance is masked by its constitution as the universal, the axiomatic and
the neutral. Masculinity assumes the banality of the unstated norm, which does not require
comment or explanation. Its very invisibility illustrates its privilege (Kimmel et al.,2005).
Whilst there is an established body of literature which has put the analytical spotlight onto
the performances of men and masculinities (Collinson and Hearn, 1994, 1996;
Connell, 1995; Kerfoot and Knights, 1993; Martin, 2001; Simpson, 2004), there is little
research which explores the nature and operation of the boys club.
Masculinity (like femininity) is commonly given an essentialist label and referred to
as the innate qualities of men and also those that distinguish men from women.
Men’s biological destiny also results in political, economic and cultural privileges. This
“masculine advantage” is apparently reﬂected in a genetic predisposition to aggression
(in contrast to the passivity of femininity), physical strength (in contrast to the
weakness of femininity) and sexual drives (in contrast to the sexual reserve of
femininity). Feminist scholarship has long critiqued the political convenience of
explaining gender inequality and hierarchy in terms of men’s natural superiority. But it
is only in the last 20 years or so that the social construction and signiﬁcance of
masculinity in the workplace has been analysed rather than taken for granted (Connell,
1995; Collinson and Hearn, 1996; Martin, 2001). Even more recently there has been an
acknowledgement of a poststructuralist perspective which explores the dynamic
nature of masculinity: how it is constructed and reconstructed, how it is experienced on
a subjective level and how multiple masculinities exist in relation to the dominant
(hegemonic) form. This perspective suggests that masculinity may well be divided,
ambiguous and contradictory. In this context, critical masculinity studies suggests
that it is very difﬁcult to deﬁne masculinity, as it is plural, changing and historically
informed around dominant discourses or ideologies of masculinism (Whitehead and
Barrett, 2001, p. 15).
Connell’s (1995) deﬁnition of masculinity emphasises three issues:
(1) masculinity is not the property of men;
(2) that we should be wary of using the terms “men”, “male” and “masculinity”
(3) discourses of masculinity are available to, used by and imposed upon both
men and women.
Understanding masculinity as discourse broadens the focus beyond men and the
biological or cultural bases of their masculine nature or identity. This suggests that far
from being an essential quality, masculinity is to be identiﬁed in and constructed
through the ways of being to be found in dominant male groups in particular social
circumstances (Paechter, 2006; Dalley-Trim, 2006). An important related phenomenon
is the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” deﬁned as:
[...] the conﬁguration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the
problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the
dominant position of men and the subordination of women (Connell, 1995, p. 77).
The concept of hegemonic masculinity notes the diversity within masculinities, the
notion of multiple masculinities (Kimmel et al., 2005) and enables us to acknowledge
that masculinity is constructed, but that all masculinities are not equal. Hegemonic
masculinity represents a dominant, normative form of masculinity which suppresses
both women and subordinate forms of masculinity, and may be understood as a
pattern of practices which enables men’s dominance over women to continue (Connell,
1987; Bird, 1996; Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). It could be described as:
[...] the dominant and dominating forms of masculinity which claim the highest status and
exercise the greatest inﬂuence and authority and which represent the standard bearer of what
it means to be a “real” man (Dalley-Trim, 2006, p. 201).
The original use of the term suggested that even those men manifesting non-dominant,
non-hegemonic versions of masculinity would complicitly receive the beneﬁts of
patriarchy (the “patriarchal dividend”, Connell (1995)). Whilst Beasley and Elias (2006)
challenge this notion, claiming that dominant forms of masculinity may or may not
legitimate men’s power and those that do may not be common or celebrated. But whilst
accepting that this is contested terrain, the concept is still useful in understanding how
masculinity in whatever form can confer considerable power, over women, on to all
men (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005).
In the organisational context, Collinson and Hearn (1994, p. 12) have attempted to
unpick these “tensions between the collective power of men and masculinities, and
differentiation amongst men and masculinities”. Nonetheless they argue that various
masculinities are central to the exercise of gendered power in the workplace. They propose
ﬁve discourses and practices of masculinity that are endemic in many organisations:
authoritarianism; paternalism; entrepreneurialism; informalism and careerism.
Authoritarianism “celebrates a brutal and aggressive masculinity” whilst paternalism
“draws upon the familial metaphor of the ‘rule of the father’ who is authoritative,
benevolent, self-disciplined and wise” (1994, p. 13). Entrepreneurialism “articulates a
‘hard-nosed’ and highly competitive approach to business and organisation and is
associated with more recent management styles”. Careerism suggests an obsession with
hierarchical success, particularly in the case of middle class masculinities where men
deﬁne themselves (and are deﬁned) “as the privatised breadwinner whose primary
purpose is to ‘provide’ for their families” (Collinson and Hearn, 1994, p. 15). Finally,
informalism reveals the nature of the informal networking between men based on shared
masculine interests and values. Whilst the ﬁrst four of these discourses have been well
discussed elsewhere, the ﬁnal discourse of informalism has received very little focus. It is
this process, encapsulated in the metaphor of the boys club and charged with “homosocial
desire”, and its signiﬁcance with regard to supporting hegemonic masculinity, which
forms the central theoretical theme of this research. The following section discusses the
genesis of this phenomenon.
Homosocial desire, informalism, and the boys club
The shared interests and values which constitute Collinson and Hearn’s (1994)
“informalism” are not necessarily just related to possessing similar class origins or
schooling, as is often suggested by the term the “old boys network”. Instead they are
associated with what might be described as “locker room” exchanges around work, sex,
sport, cars and alcohol, which can unite men and exclude women in a variety of occupations
and organisations. The exclusion of women from these powerful decision-making
networks has negative consequences for women’s careers (Gregory, 2009; Mooney and
Ryan, 2009; Pesonen et al., 2009; van den Brink and Benschop, 2012). Since the 1970s an
increasing number of researchers have made reference to both how, and the consequences
of the way, men bond at work, not least of all because, arguably, male bonding is how men
obtain power and how they keep it (Lipman-Blumen, 1976; Kanter, 1977; Morgan, 1981;
Witz and Savage, 1992; Collinson and Hearn, 1994; Roper, 1996; Bird, 1996; Martin, 2001;
Gregory, 2009). However, there is little close empirical scrutiny of the covert, behind the
scenes operation of the boys club, or of the observations of women who glimpse its
operation and effects.
Early work by both Kanter (1977) in her study of a large US Corporation,
and Morgan (1981) in his study of British academia highlighted the tendency of men
to feel more comfortable with other men. Kanter anticipated the phenomenon of
homosocial desire as she described organisational processes (referred to as both
“homosexual reproduction” (1977, p. 48) and “homosocial reproduction” (1977, p. 63))
whereby men of Indsco (her case study organisation) actively preferred to reproduce
themselves in their own image and when recruiting or promoting staff. The managers
at Indsco “were not exactly cut out of the same mould like paper dolls, but the
similarities in appearance were striking” (Kanter, 1977, p. 47). It was easier to be with,
work with, and talk to, those of “one’s kind” and the rationale for these preferences was
the need to control the uncertainties of managing organisations. Thus, Kanter
construed this behaviour as less about gender and power, and more about a rational
response to the insecurity and unpredictability of organisational life. It is because of
this that Collinson and Hearn (1996) argue that whilst her study helps us describe how
male power may persist, it is less useful in analysing this power. Consequently,
although her work has been described as path breaking, it did not relate this need for
control to the need to sustain a shared masculine identity. It has been for other writers
to make sense of the link between management and men through the search for a
secure and stable masculine identity (Collinson and Hearn, 1996).
Lipman-Blumen (1976) developed a “homosocial theory of sex roles”. Male
homosociability suggests that men recognise “the power their male peers have, ﬁnd
one another stimulating, exciting, productive, attractive and important, since they can
contributeto virtually all aspects of one another’s’lives” (Lipman-Blumen, 1976,pp. 30-31).
Thus, the exclusion of women from organisations is part of a larger pattern of a male
homosocial world: women are excluded because their lack of resources makes them less
useful and less interesting to men and (ultimately) to other women too. Building on this
notion, Morgan’s (1981) study of British universities, discusses the mechanics of male
homosociability in academic settings, exploring how far the dominant academic discourse
is in fact a male discourse which hides behind the labels of rationality, scientiﬁc and
scholarliness. He introduces the notion of academic machismo (the competitive display of
aggressive maleskills, similar toCollinson and Hearn’s (1994) authoritarianism) which he
argues is maintained by the forces of “homosociability” (Morgan, 1981, p. 102), observed
in the faculty club or the staff bar or the daily conversations about sport or cars or hi-ﬁ
equipment. This operates to exclude newcomers and outsiders without physically nailing
a “men only” sign onto each and every front door (Morgan, 1981, p. 103). Thus, far, as
Kanter surmises (1977, p. 68), there seems to be something of a self-fulﬁlling prophecy
about the operation of male bonding. The more closed the circle, the harder it is for
outsiders to break in and their very difﬁculty in entering can be taken as a sign that the
insiders were right to lock the door because the assailants are obviously incompetent.
Roper (1996, p. 212) rejects the terms “homosexual reproduction” (Kanter, 1977) and
male homosociability (Morgan, 1981; Witz and Savage, 1992) arguing that they fail to
capture “the aspects of desire that give male bonding in management its peculiar
intensity”. He prefers Sedgwick’s (1985) concept of “homosocial desire” which better
encapsulates the “energy” and “chemistry” which ﬂows between some men at work and
can inﬂuence their decisions about who succeeds whom. It isa phrase which highlightsthe
“ambiguities between the ‘social’ and the ‘sexual’ in men’s networks” (Roper, 1996, p. 213).
Martin (2001) refers to the ways in which men collectively “mobilise masculinities” at
work, investigating men’s behaviour “not primarily directed toward women, but enacted
in the presence of women, that men see as natural or harmless but women often experience
as harmful” (Martin, 2001, p. 589). As Martin (2001, p. 606) describes it, there is only
“liminal awareness” of masculinities by the men who perform them. She identiﬁed two
types of mobilisation, “contesting” and “afﬁliating” masculinities. Afﬁliating includes
visiting: when men visit each other informally in corridors and other places, superﬁcially
appearing to be a recreational endeavour but often providing support, access, inclusion
and opportunities. This is redolent of Collinson and Hearn’s (1994) informalism whereby
men build networks and “bond”. Interestingly, this phenomenon of male bonding, of
masculinity which is afﬁliative, intimate, informal and charged with emotional energy
represents a challenge to dominant ideas of male organisational identities. Roper (1996)
has identiﬁed a lack of research which investigates the intimacy between men in
management and how it can ensure the exclusion of outsiders, particularly women,
arguing that this neglect is related to the endurance of the organisational model where
masculinity is rational and impersonal and not emotional. What constitutes the masculine
has become associated with power, control, rationality, measurement and objectivity
(Kerfoot and Knights, 1993; Martin, 2001;Fournier and Kelemen, 2001) whilst the feminine
is identiﬁed as emotional, afﬁliative, intimate, sexual (Fournier and Kelemen, 2001; Grant,
1988). This myth of the organisational “rational man” will only be challenged once
researchers investigate and highlight the intimate and emotional practices of men
towards other men in the workplace.
This study draws on all these perspectives about the performance of masculinity
and male bonding. It is the notions of mobilising masculinities and male homosocial
desire which have been particularly useful. The notion of mobilising masculinities
highlights the sheer variety of different ways (and for different audiences) that men
bond together with the resulting beneﬁcial organisational outcomes for the men
concerned. The concept of homosocial desire is particularly attractive as it names the
emotional and irrational power in this male bonding behaviour which crucially
undermines the ubiquitous nature of the “men as rational” discourse which dominates
the study of organisations. Largely unrecognised, invisible, taken for granted, these
behaviours are nevertheless about power and exclusion: “the public staging of a
seemingly unintelligible language of relatedness is not only a tour de force of male
exclusivity but also is a collective display of power” (Kaplan, 2005, p. 592).
The context of this study and its methodology
Universities are sites where there are still strong associations between men, power and
authority: academic identities are drenched with images of various masculinities which
set the human template against which the “other” (including women) will be judged.
At the same time the number and percentage of women employed in higher education
in the UK, particularly in academic roles, has grown steeply in the past 20 years (AUT,
2004; UCU, 2013). Yet on average women are paid less than men and are segregated
both occupationally and vertically. Women make up 46.8 per cent of non-professorial
academic staff but constitute only 19.8 per cent of professors (UCU, 2013). Thus, the
UK HE context offers a rich site for exploring the operation of masculinities and the
boys club. This ethnographic data presented here is drawn from a large new university
and speciﬁcally from its Business School, which we have named “Matrix”. During the
period of study women academics constituted 25 per cent of the total academic staff of
The empirical data upon which this paper is based was collected over a ﬁve year
period in the mid-2000s. This research draws upon both feminist and poststructural
perspectives. Whilst there is tension between those positions there is also synergy. Our
intention is to embrace both positions and create a useful and fruitful relationship for
this research. Poststructuralism enables feminism to look imaginatively at power,
selves, knowledge production and how the language of power operates. But it does not
mean that feminism needs to abandon “women” as a political category (Ramazanoglu
and Holland, 2002) or the values and principles which lie at the heart of the feminist
project (Francis, 2002). Feminists may have to accept the instability of the category
“women”, but that does not mean that the category should not be used politically (Butler,
1990, p. 15). The most signiﬁcant point for us about attempting to integrate feminist and
poststructuralist research is that whilst we accept that there is no “truth” to be found,
this particular story is not often heard out loud because it is from the standpoint of the
women (and some men) academics, as told to (and interpreted by) us, feminists working
in a business school.
During the research one of us conducted a focus group of eight women academics,
maintained detailed ﬁeld notes from public meetings, committees, informal and social
events, and a research diary. We also interviewed 25 academics, a quarter of whom were
men (it is worth noting that several men declined to be involved whereas women readily
participated in the research). Each interview was open ended and based on a set of
prompts in order to deal with a range of topics. All interviews were recorded and then
transcribed verbatim by us. They were long and intense, most lasted between 2 and 3
hours. The focus group lasted 3 hours and was also recorded and transcribed. By the end
of the transcribing there were several hundred thousand words to analyse and reﬂect
upon. Denzin and Lincoln (1994) describe qualitative research as “bricolage” or
quilt-making, implying that researchers will utilise many different strategies and
methods to collect and analyse “data” and this mirrors our eclectic approach.
The approach to the data analysis was framed by our overall theoretical, ontological and
epistemological stances. Consequently, the data review was strongly informed by critical
discourse analysis, which aims to move beyond a surface level examination of discourse
“to show how it simultaneously produces and hides ‘deep structure’ relations of power and
inequality” (Mumby and Clair, 1997, p. 183). There were multiplediscourses at playin this
organization, pervading, legitimating, creating and justifying the talk of the participants.
An example of one of the discourses identiﬁed through this analysis was that of
the linguistic constructions of entrepreneurialism. This particular discourse was
underpinned by masculinised terminology, like “penetrating markets”, “increasing sperm
counts”, “strap lines” and so on. The analytical approach also borrowed from other
techniques and sources, for example, coding key words and phrases to build themes
whilst being sensitive to the use of narratives and stories by our participants (Coffey and
Atkinson, 1996). An example of coding the data was the incidence of references to the
“academic as entrepreneur” (coded as AE). Similar codeswere linked together into a theme
which identiﬁed the impact of new managerialism in this Business School. These different
analytical techniques sit comfortably with the overarching anti-realist paradigm of the
research (meaning that we deny that there is an external reality awaiting a deﬁnitive
portrayal by us), but their use offered us alternative insights into the data.
The following sections present the ﬁndings, drawn from the analysis of this data.
The structure of the ﬁndings section follow the research objectives listed in the aims
section at the start of this paper.
Findings: the manifestations of the boys club at Matrix
Being “in the company of men” can be a daunting experience for many women in the
workplace (Ozga and Walker, 1999). Organisational cultures are often described as
“the way we do things round here” which constructs the “we” as the norm, forgetting
about exclusions and bias. We contend that male homosocial desire is the glue that holds
together a multitude of different performances of masculinity by different men at
different times and supports a current form of hegemonic masculinity which is inscribed
in the culture of the organisation. Discourses of masculinity imbue certain cultures and
produce various exclusionary practices which “keep women in their place” (Blackmore,
1999, p. 131). Thus, identifying the “places” in which the boys club exists may be
challenging given its ubiquity and embeddedness. Nevertheless, the practice of
homoerotic male bonding activities amongst some male academics is at times highly
visible. This can be at the pub during and after work, via corridor conversations,
“matey” greetings, pats on the back or handshakes at the start of committee meetings,
exam boards or departmental meetings. It can also be found in less visible forms.
The following is an extract from a research diary entry:
As an aside to another, different, conversation, my newish colleague in the HR team, Carl, just
told me that he belongs to a business school men-only e-mail network of football news, jokes and
discussions about ﬁnancial investments. He did not actually say that women were excluded but
we realised that it must be the case when I asked him who was on the distribution list and who
had invited him tojoin. He was most embarrassed but unwilling to raise the issue of exclusivity
with the network. Being a keen football fan, I was so surprised and disappointed that this
relatively new member of staff belonged to a network about which I (as a member of staff for
decades) knew nothing. I asked all my female colleagues and none of them had heard about it.
Mooney and Ryan (2009, p. 203) in their study of the hotel industry, reported male only
networks which were built on sports events or drinking sessions, but which were also
events where important organisational information was shared. Similarly, at the
business school a “drinking club”, glimpsed more publicly, but nevertheless closed to
women participants exists. The following recalls supplementary ﬁeld notes from an
interview with a male member of staff:
It is well known at the business school that there is a regular drinking haunt after work at the
Blue Dragon public house. It is frequented by a group of male academics and women are not
invited. According to Jack and Tony, it has been the scene of many good times, particularly
the scathing but “humorous” attacks on the appearance and clothing of the new female dean.
After one recent session, Louis (who “confessed” that he had been invited as a new male
member of staff), offered to show me his mobile phone pictures of the event. He was rather
surprised about the drunkenness and general behaviour, although admitted that he was still
pleased he had been invited to this inner circle, and knowing of my research, thought I would
be interested. He had entered academia later than most and had spent some years as a lorry
driver. He said he was shocked to ﬁnd a “boys club” mentality amongst academics that was
similar to his experiences of lorry driving.
Similarly for at least 20 years, there has been a male-only football team called the
“the codgers”. It is comprised of male academics and male caretakers and an important
part of the codgers is the after-match drinking. It is common to overhear detailed
discussions of matches and drinking sessions in the corridors, in reception (the morning
after) and before meetings, and several of the female interview participants reported
having done so. Jane, for example, reported:
You always know when they’ve been on the lash after the match as they sport their
hangovers and bruises as trophies.
These diary entries are speciﬁcally about the exclusion of outsiders (usually women)
from boys club activities. All men are welcome to join, and new male employees will be
speciﬁcally invited. The interactions are intimate, sparky and humorous but ultimately
exclusive, and the activities themselves are often only glimpsed accidentally or
partially by non-participants. Male homosocial desire is fundamental to this system
which results in women’s subtle exclusion from the informal network. There is nothing
new about the existence and power of male bonding in universities and there are some
popular humorous novels written by male academics (Amis, 1954; Bradbury, 1975;
Jacobson, 1983; Lodge, 1985) which dramatically illustrate how this has operated
within British universities for many decades (Oakley, 2001). Other sites of boys club
performance include speciﬁc role activities, particularly the entrepreneurial activities
associated with income generation and external business contracts. As Sonia
It’s a stitch-up: it’s blokes serving their own interests, lining their own pockets and keeping
their mates comfortable, and they don’t share it, and you know that Jane is better at external
relationship building than the whole lot of them put together.
Thus, the entrepreneurial domain is constructed as a masculine space from which women
are excluded and offer a site for homosocial informalism as well as entrepreneurialism
(Collinson and Hearn, 1994). In the encroaching climate of new managerialism, an
entrepreneurial discourse has been given a higher priority in terms of strategic objectives
and teaching hours made available to staff who are involved in these “income generation”
activities. Interestingly the discourse of entrepreneurialismseems to encompass an image
of masculinity that is located literally in the arms ofmale homosocial desire. In particular
the qualities that seem to be required for “making contacts” and “getting business” are
constructed as being contingent upon male networking and chemistry. It is an image of
masculinity that is common in the media, especially through the 1980s, with its mixture of
the macho, virile and ﬂamboyant entrepreneur. Witness this account of the language
deployed by Simon, principal lecturer for income generation:
He gave a presentation at our departmental meeting today about his plans for our subject
area. The words and phrases he used about “getting business” generally involved a
combination of “strap, bottom and base lines”, “bullet-proofed approaches” and other macho
and “masculinised” commentary. He even excitedly applauded the work of the HR “guru”
Gary Hamel who had recently urged HR practitioners to “battle the forces of the status quo”,
“seize new opportunities” and to combat organisations who “suffer from a low corporate
sperm count” (Hamel, 2002, p. 9). All of this was given, at length, by Simon with a completely
serious face and met with looks of disbelief on the faces of the women academics.
Until recent years, this entrepreneurial identity has not been an image readily associated
with university academics (unless you include the writing of the ﬁctional Jamie Targett,
Director of Strategy, at the ﬁctional University of Poppleton THES (2013)). It is usually
associated with “selling” type occupations and commonly associated with the use of
highly heterosexualised language (“penetrating markets” and “getting into bed with
suppliers”, “low corporate sperm counts” and so on). There has been a sea change in this
and other British universities (Morley, 2003; Davies, 2003) and such macho
entrepreneurial discourses and the (often male) academics that deploy them are taken
far more seriously. Kerfoot and Knights (1996, p. 83) have demonstrated how
“corporate capitalism is both the vehicle for the expression of this masculinity and a
major driving force”. Thus, the dominant and legitimacy-garnering performance of
masculinity in this academic context can be seen to have shifted to a more entrepreneurial
place, but nevertheless to have continued to successfully exclude women.
An equally noteworthy phenomenon is the extent to which men may reject places
where male homosociability may not be available. A signiﬁcant number of male
participants were obviously uncomfortable when they encountered two or more women
academics sitting or standing together in a meeting room or public space (although this
is quite rare as there are so few women academics). The feelings of discomfort, if not
alarm, became particularly acute when the business school appointed its ﬁrst female
Dean, as this was often seen as evidence of a female conspiracy. Interestingly, whilst
male “places” remain covert or glimpsed at best, female homosocial places and arenas
are sharply remarked upon, revealed and reviled by their very female identity, although
the associated lack of power and privilege is unacknowledged:
Ralph came up to our table in the canteen today (there were three women academics from his
department sitting down together), but when invited, he refused to sit down with us because
he said that he didn’t feel comfortable sitting with a table of just women! He felt happier if
there were men too.
Similarly, Sarah recounts in her interview:
So Warren comes up to my table in the canteen at lunch time today. I’m sitting with one
female colleague. He says that he’ll sit with us today because there were only two of us now.
Yesterday he couldn’t sit with us because it was just a “ladies circle”. This is a more polite
term for a group of women sitting together as we have frequently been accused of hatching
toil and trouble. Gordon even actually called us a witches’ coven.
These examples serve to reinforce a clear message that men seem to be more comfortable
when they are with other men and cultivate and nurture opportunities for being so
(Lipman-Blumen, 1976; Kanter, 1977; Morgan, 1981; Roper, 1996; Bird, 1996; Martin,
2001; Broadbridge and Hearn, 2008; Gregory, 2009; Mooney and Ryan, 2009). In this
research, it was evident that not only were men more comfortable with other men, they
were also distinctly uncomfortable when they were outnumbered by academic women.
Thus, the location of the boys club can be seen to be everywhere in the organisation
(except where women congregate): in the formal activities, roles and processes which
constitute organisational practice, but also in the invisible, cloaked and concealed
networks of which most female organisational members are at best only liminally aware.
Findings: the inﬂuence of the boys club on decision making at Matrix
This section considers the means by which men establish the boys club; the practices
which can be seen in the way that men stand, the clothes (or unofﬁcial uniform) that they
wear, the physical and verbal space they dominate and the topics they discuss. Such
public performances can feel particularly exclusionary to any women who are present.
The following excerpts from the interview transcripts and detailed ﬁeld notes suggest
that a variety of manifestations of male homosocial desire are an essential element of the
social mechanisms in this workplace, through which men both reproduce themselves in
their own image and construct managerial practices which create a “close and gendered
circle” (Savage and Witz, 1992, p. 15). Several of the following excerpts refer to the tactic
of “masculinist exclusion” (Blackmore, 1999) where casual and formal conversations are
dominated by (supposedly) men’s interests and littered with sporting metaphors
(“caught off side” and “close of play”). This is something that has been referred to as the
“football league model of leadership” (Eisenstein, 1996). Kelly graphically reports a
canteen conversation “hijacked” by two male colleagues:
Did you see how the conversation was taken over? It was so obvious that the moment they
arrived we were going to have to listen to their latest success story and all that mutual
appreciation and wanking each other off.
Others however identify more concerted yet unofﬁcial practices which offer potential
privilege to their male participants:
Some male colleagues often talk about going to see the new male Dean for a “chat” about their
career prospects or their achievements. Today Warren was talking about a meeting he’d just
organised with the Dean. It reminded me that both Jack and Simon have discussed doing this
on a number of occasions and don’t view it as anything unusual. When asked, most female
colleagues ﬁnd these “man to man” chats with the Dean rather surprising, exclusionary and a
little intimidating. Brenda remarked that she had never been to see the dean about her career
and that “surely the dean just wants us to get on with our jobs, doesn’t he?”.
Thus, the afﬁliative performance of masculinity (Martin, 2001) extends across
hierarchies and serves to support male progression and careerism (Collinson and
Hearn, 1994). Just like all the UK HEIs (UCU, 2013) and internationally too (van den Brink
and Benschop, 2012), the professoriate (at school and university level) is an
overwhelmingly male institution. Connie is the ﬁrst and only female professor
(of seven in total) at the business school. This university professoriate has a male to
female gender split of 87:13. In her interview Connie reﬂected upon how difﬁcult it was
for her to become part of the professoriate’s male club:
Larry (a fellow male professor at the business school) is quite a “mans man”, he’s not
comfortable with women, particularly when he was outnumbered on the senior management
executive. When the professors here go for a research lunch it’s a male thing and the likes of
Paul (a fellow male professor) and Larry are quite happy going on about football or whatever.
There’s a certain kind of talk, a certain kind of maleness, a certain level of comfort. There’s no
“new manness” going on there, it’s a male thing.
Thus, afﬁliation across a certain level in the hierarchy remains exclusionary to female
members. Similarly, Sonia found being the ﬁrst female head of a male-only strategy
department rather painful in the way that the men had historically “bonded” together
to organise work patterns in a way that suited them. Timetables were constructed
around various social arrangements between groups of male colleagues. Sonia faced
ferocious (at times quite nasty) opposition when her decisions disrupted these work
patterns. Her experiences indicate her discovery of the power of the homosocial
bonding operating within that department:
There are these clans that protect each other. They seem to be remnants of an old boy’s
network, although not of a public school type.
Interestingly, she identiﬁes the group as a clan or network, emphasizing both the
informal and the afﬁliative nature of the group’s behaviours: a group in which she was
the only female member, and failed to beneﬁt from the “clan” privileges. She was aware
of signiﬁcant opposition to her becoming the new head of department from the men,
and one even articulated his rejection of her candidacy:
When it came out that I would be applying for Head of Department, one male colleague said
to me, well my only objection to that is that I’m going to have a female manager!
The whole issue of women being successful in senior management and other
appointments caused something of a male backlash, even though when men were
appointed no comments were ever made that the majority of successes were usually
men and always had been. In a similar vein, when yet another woman academic was
appointed as a lecturer in the HR department; a senior male academic was appalled.
Kath reﬂected upon this in her interview:
Remember when Jereni was appointed, Robert wasn’t at all happy because he was really
agitated and walking up and down the corridor saying “we need more men, we need more
men, we don’t need any more women”!
Many male academics were just much more comfortable working closely with other men
(Kanter, 1977; Morgan, 1981), and would often publicly “sponsor” favoured candidates
for jobs and promotions, invariably male, but cloaked in the neutrality of competence or
merit: witness Charlie, a long-serving and powerful male head of department discussing
his “boy” in a forthcoming promotion selection process:
It’s deﬁnitely Steve’s turn; he deserves a crack of the whip.
Consequently, when some women were being successful at selection panels then there must
be something wrong with the “fair” process whichhadirrationallyallowed(yetanother)
woman to be appointed. A constant theme of the male criticism of the female head of
department appointments was the implication that now there were women in senior
positions (including the Dean), they would use their power in a gender-motivated way and
would appoint women. The fact that for the whole of the historical existence of the business
school, male managers had always appointed other men and that actually after the briefest
of windows, it was now back to “business as usual” was not worthy of any comment by
male colleagues! The theme of male academics believing that there were unfair selection
practices being exercised by gender-motivated female managers (especially the Dean) is
reﬂected in the following transcript excerpts from Zoe (a Programme Manager and Senior
Lecturer) and Jane (a Head of Department). Zoe argued that whenever a woman is
appointed, there is speculation that the reasons are other than job competence. Jane argued
that it is lazy and inaccurate to suggest that the female Dean was biased towards women as
there was not enough evidence. This is what Zoe and Jane had to say in their interviews:
If a man appoints a woman, it’s because he fancies her; if a woman appoints a man, it might
be because she fancies him or he might be the best for the job; if a man appoints a man, it’s
because he’s the best for the job (not that he’s appointing in his own likeness) and ﬁnally, if a
woman appoints a woman, she probably favours women because she’s a woman herself.
The common thread would appear to be, that when women are doing the appointing
and women are then appointed to jobs, there must be speculation about their lack of
rational and objective decision making abilities:
After the appointment of Bridget as Dean and Alison as Associate Dean, Larry began
complaining because the executive team was all women and him and that the meetings were
like the Women’s Institute. You’d often hear, “you’ve got to be a woman to get on round here”.
When I got the head of department job, a male colleague said that I’d got it because I was
female. Larry said to me “oh you’ll be alright because you’re a woman”. It’s too easy to say she
just appoints females. There’s no evidence. Look, now there’s an all male executive, but none
of them remark on that.
There was no similar commentary when the senior executive became all male once more.
Blackmore (1999) has argued that masculinist hegemony is fought for, contested and
reformulated through a range of discursive practices and discoursesof denigration about
femininity in general. The focus on women as the “problem” has deﬂected attention
away from the intimate connections between discourses of masculinity, rationality and
leadership. White, middle-class, heterosexual males continue to wield cultural and
ﬁnancial power derived from current educational discourses that exist about “good”
leadership – discourses that link masculinity with economic rationality, being strong,
making “hard” decisions and entrepreneurship (Blackmore, 1999). The notion of the
organisational “rational man”continues to be extremely powerful and despite examples to
the contrary, some men in this study continued to discursively distance themselves from
any notion of men tomen emotional behaviour. As Jack reported in his interview when he
described the “rational talk” of men compared to the emotional “chat” of women:
Guys talk about crumpet, football, and cars. Corridor conversations amongst guys tend to be
about the malaise of the organisation. We don’t “chat”, like women do. I wouldn’t seek a male
colleague out to have a chat. Guys just don’t share like that; they talk about personal ego
driven and career driven things. A small percentage would be to do with people, which
I should imagine would be a signiﬁcant percentage of the information that women share.
Guys just don’t talk about these things.
The new female Dean was clearly considered to be incapable of making “rational”
selection decisions. Hence her recruitment of women in general and the fact that the
senior executive was dominated by women meant that meetings “degenerated” into
discussions about “irrational” topics like curtains and wallpaper. The only male
professor on the executive (Larry) at that time, was frequently reported as saying he
disliked being the only man in a group of women. The problem is not identiﬁed as
being the undermining of male bonding; it is the suspect selection decisions which
result in the appointment of women and that women in senior roles are a “problem”.
There seems to be a form of almost invisible hegemonic masculinity that is
intimately entwined with and supported by male homosocial desire imbuing these
practices. It is self-serving and self-sustaining, and different male colleagues can and
do perform this kind of masculinity at different times but very few men will challenge
it. One thing is clear: women remain excluded, and become aware of both the practices
and their effects only when they offer a challenge to the boys club or ﬁnd themselves
marginalised or alienated by it.
Conclusion: the key characteristics of male homosocial desire at Matrix
This paper aimed to explore the nature of male homosocial desire and the boys club in one
business school over a period of ﬁve years in the ﬁrst decade of the 2000s. There was
plentiful evidence of male bonding and a boys club to which women were not welcome.
The recorded observations by women and men participants regularly witnessed
intense and passionate displays of male homosocial desire at the business school.
These were the sticky substances that united their version of hegemonic masculinity and
so “this performance of pleasure serves to empower and privilege male social and
organisational networks” (Kaplan, 2005). It has a long history and is referred to in many
ways, “male bonding”, “male-to-male relatedness”, “the locker room”, the lads club,
“homosexual and homosocial reproduction”, “homosociability”, “homosocial desire” and
“mobilising masculinities”. It seems particularly apposite to focus on male homosocial
bonding now when, as more women have reached management positions, they do not
enjoy the same advantages of homosocial desire and do not habitually cooperate or
support each other in the manner of men (Mavin, 2008; Mavin and Williams, 2011). It
might appear that there is something of a paradox here at Matrix. On the one hand,
during the course of this study, we have seen an increased representation of women at
senior management levels. Yet on the other hand, we have seen the continuous operation
and inﬂuence of homosocial desire and the boys club. It is true, that brieﬂy (for perhaps
two years) there were more women in the senior management team than ever before in
the history of Matrix. This was so visible and different that it was remarked upon by
most academic staff. It seemed to trigger an unusually vocal and visible display of male
homosocial behaviour and bonding, which in turn, sparked the original research (for a
Fuller discussion, Fisher (2007)). When the senior management team returned to
“normal”, that is, all male, some of the more overt displays of homosocial desire and
bonding returned to “normal” and went “behind closed doors”. Throughout the whole
period of this research, women remained as only 25 per cent of the total academic staff
and there should be no surprise to discover that these women were largely concentrated
into to one academic subject area, people and organisations.
Like Roper (1996) we have preferred the term homosocial desire (Sedgwick, 1985)
because of the palpable sparks of energy, ﬂushed-face excitement and desire between
men when they are together, in both formal and informal work situations. These public
displays of intimacy may be physical (shaking hands, slapping backs, holding arms),
verbal (hello mate, jokes and humour, even insults) and/or subject-speciﬁc (sport, DIY,
cars, even sexual banter or “crumpet” to quote one male colleague). They discharge an
invisible membrane of closeness between the individual men involved and that excludes
all outsiders (mainly women and very occasionally some dissident men). These men
really liked to be together, felt most comfortable when they were surrounded by other
men and uncomfortable when there were just too many academic women around!
The difﬁcult question to answer with certainty is whether male bonding such as this
inﬂuences decision making and other organisational “effects” in the organisation. How
can a researcher “prove” something that no-one involved would ever confess or be
aware? It was however, absolutely clear that the public male antagonism towards more
women being appointed (particularly at senior levels) became a hostile questioning of
the legitimacy of those women who had been successful. Additionally, what was clear
was that where women were aware of the activities of the boys club, even if they
did not name them as such nor recognise the homosocial desire at play in its support
and maintenance, they reported feeling excluded, marginalised, sidelined, patronised,
and ignored. The overwhelming dominance of male appointments, at all levels, was
never questioned by any man in this research. We would contend that the way most
men found one another more comforting, exciting and attractive and ultimately useful
(so that there was a complicity even from dissenting men), supports the view that
homosocial desire affects decision making in favour of the recipients of that desire.
From the evidence of this research, the key characteristics of male homosocial desire
at the business school can be described in six different ways. Emotional: the bonding
between these men exudes a chemistry which is intimate and emotional. It might take
place through humour or insults, backslapping or handshakes, but it is a public display
of seduction and belonging (Kaplan, 2005). It undermines the myth of the non-emotional
organisation man (Roper, 1996). This aspect was most evident through the observation
of corridor conversations and informal moments during critical events. The physical
touching, the excited recall of sporting or drinking moments, the warm “matey”
greetings, face to face, hand to arm, which include the insiders to the group and exclude
everyone else. Invisible: although often demonstrated in public spaces, the identiﬁcation
of male performances as being by men or being masculine is often not verbalised, either
by men or women. When asked at interview about their identity, the Matrix men did not
identify themselves as men. Only one believed that being a man had inﬂuenced his
career at all and the rest thought it irrelevant. As Whitehead (2001, p. 77) observed of his
academic male participants when asked about their masculinity:
[...] they appeared never to have reﬂected on themselves, as men, indeed, never felt the need
to reﬂect on themselves as men. Their manhood, maleness, masculinity was a given,
a universal “fact”. It was as if all else revolved around this, with them as the centre. It was like
questioning the existence of the sun, sky or air we breathe.
When interviewed, the Matrix women all immediately identiﬁed as women and saw it
as the key factor in their career progression. When the senior executive team of the
school was mainly women it was continually made reference to, by men because of its
gender split. When the senior executive team became all male once more, as in all the
decades before, this was never a subject for commentary. This invisibility is a powerful
feature of the nature of discourses around gender. The rationale of gender equity
policies is usually based on the evidence of female disadvantage. However, the
discourse of female disadvantage breaks the “relational link” to male advantage.
The invisibility of masculinities at play in the business school masks the signiﬁcance
of male advantage. Feminists have not engaged sufﬁciently well with the level of
investment most men have in maintaining existing gender relations (Cockburn, 1991)
and the capacity of hegemonic masculinity and the operation of homosocial desire to
deﬂect attention away from itself has been a major barrier to effecting change in
gender relations (Connell, 1987). In-denial: the men denied that they were close,
intimate or emotional in their exchanges with each other, as Jack said “we don’t chat,
like women do”. The myth of the rational man was maintained (along with the
emotional woman). Men talk about things not people. Complicit: not all men are
comfortable with what may be seen as the dominant and successful ways of being a
man and thus may not like being part of some male bonding sessions. Men do not have
to perform their masculinities in the same way, and some clearly are not comfortable
with certain expressions of masculinity, but do not openly rebel and thereby still
beneﬁt from the advantages of membership. Their “complicity” makes those versions
of masculinity stronger simply because they remain unchallenged in public spaces, and
consequently it could be argued that these “men who receive the beneﬁts of patriarchy
without enacting a strong version of masculine dominance could be regarded as
showing a complicit masculinity” (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 832). As Carl
If you are male you can blend into the background when you are with a bunch of other males.
You are camouﬂaged. I don’t enjoy conversations with men, I don’t like some of their bigoted
views, but I listen, although I wouldn’t say anything to contradict them.
So long as they keep quiet about their disquiet then they remain part of the inner
sanctum. In fact they can acquire kudos as being “new men” but they still beneﬁt from
hanging out with the “old men”. Organisationally powerful: this invisible,
unacknowledged daily stream of emotional and irrational male “love-ins” is very
powerful. Key career decisions are made, whether it is through selection or appraisal or
promotion or networking, all underpinned by male bonding. It is impossible to “prove”
and it happens with one section of the workforce not necessarily knowing anything
about it, not being involved and with no-one acknowledging that anything so
“emotional” has happened that has inﬂuenced the “rational” decision making. As Charlie
said, “it is deﬁnitely Steve’s turn; he deserves a crack of the whip”. The exclusionary
effect of masculine information and support systems affects women candidates in all
phases of the appointment process (van den Brink and Benschop, 2012, p. 87).
Unintentional: from the perspective of the Matrix men, the exclusionary impact of the
public display of homosocial desire was unintentional. As Martin (2001, p. 606) reported,
there was only liminal awareness of the masculinities by the men who performed them.
Most of our male participants struggled to see their behaviour as a form of male bonding
and certainly would not see it as a deliberate act of gender exclusion.
The main aim of this paper was to contribute to the “breaking of silence” by exploring
and exposing the nature and power of the academic boys club. This is a challenging
endeavour for all the reasons previously stated, but in our view, we have presented
compelling evidence that the boys club is still very much alive and kicking, at least in the
university backwater of Matrix, if not elsewhere in the UK. These interactions could
seem to be about innocent pleasure but this disguises their importance in reinforcing
hegemonic male organisational networks. Like Morgan (1981) suggested, the men of this
business school did not have to physically nail a “men only” sign to every ofﬁce door on
the campus, in order to make it clear who was inside and who was outside. It appears that
there is more in common between the blokey world of sports journalism and the
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About the authors
Virginia Fisher is an Associate Professor in the HR & Leadership Group in the Business School
of Plymouth University. She is the Programme Manager of the MA in HRM. Virginia Fisher is
the corresponding author and can be contacted at: virginia.ﬁsher@plymouth.ac.uk
Sue Kinsey is an Associate Professor in the HR & Leadership Group in the Business School of
Plymouth University. She is also the Head of Group.
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