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Want More Women In High Places? Start By Banning Elite Social Clubs At Harvard

Pictured: Harvard students walk by as someone enters the Fly Club, one of the exclusive final clubs at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Pictured: Harvard students walk by as someone enters the Fly Club, one of the exclusive final clubs at Harvard University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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For women, progress along the road to the C-suite and to equality in compensation remains painfully slow. Women are often thwarted by barriers that are erected long before they enter the workplace. Bonds that form early in life can pave the way to a future of success, and exclusion from opportunities to form important relationships can have lifelong repercussions.

The networks that students build during their formative college years last throughout their careers. They provide a foundation of referrals and favors, and serve as the first steps towards key leadership positions in the world. That is why Harvard University’s controversial proposal to effectively prohibit private social clubs may ultimately help to push open the doors of power and influence for women in their future careers.

It is easy to draw a direct line between elite universities and the corporations and government entities its members ultimately control. Like any large and powerful institution, Harvard’s influence reaches far beyond the university’s walls. Lists of Harvard, Yale, Brown and other Ivy League graduates reveal household names in government, the Supreme Court, business and the media. If students are admitted to them, private college clubs can provide the glue that attaches young students to the alumni members who will mentor them along the path to success.

Like any large and powerful institution, Harvard’s influence reaches far beyond the university’s walls.

The struggle for women’s entry into elite private clubs is hardly new.

In 1990, Sally Frank won her 11-year legal battle to allow women into those prestigious private eating clubs at Princeton that remained closed to women. Yet nearly three decades after the Princeton litigation ended, the fight continues against admission of women at Harvard’s clubs. And even as Harvard’s administration debated its evolving policy, alumni leaders of the exclusive Fox Club terminated the provisional membership it previously granted to nine female Harvard students, thereby maintaining its male-only membership.

Women do have some exclusive clubs at Harvard, collaborations that emerged in the 1990s, partly in reaction to the exclusion of females from all-male clubs. Lacking the history of alumni generosity in buying and maintaining grand buildings, the school's four women’s clubs are housed in rented spaces. Some female Harvard students are concerned that the new policy will leave them without a safe space to gather and develop their own networks. These concerns, however, pale in comparison to what will ultimately be gained by Harvard’s proposed change, and what is lost if the clubs remain exclusive.

Students enter a side gate at Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)
Students enter a side gate at Harvard University (Joe Difazio/WBUR)

A glimpse into those gains and losses can be seen in the controversy swirling around another perk of male power — the million-dollar-plus renovation of the men’s locker room at the Charles River Country Club. The revamped space includes a men’s grill that offers lunch and dinner service, as well as a bartender. The renovation provides a haven for the male business leaders at the exclusive club to network without interference from female club members. That may not have been the club’s purpose, but that is surely its effect. And as with most conversations criticizing single-gender clubs, a male spokesman for Charles River rushed to demonstrate the club’s gender neutrality while defending the men’s grill, clearly missing the point about its impact.

The clubs at Harvard are mansions that exude influence, wealth and power. Images of women eagerly awaiting entrance to a social event at Harvard's exclusive, all-male final clubs, their invitation in hand, are a disturbing prelude to a future in which their male colleagues control the portals of power at work. The men choose who is privileged enough to attend their parties, just as they will subsequently choose who may enter the C-Suite and sit on their boards.

The men’s grill at the Charles River Country Club is simply the logical extension of the exclusive college clubs. All involved stand firmly behind perceptions of themselves as leaders capable of promoting equality, while exercising exclusivity at its most pernicious level.

Exclusion from the places where people of influence eat, relax and socialize is, in effect, exclusion from equal opportunities to succeed.

Exclusion from the places where people of influence eat, relax and socialize is, in effect, exclusion from equal opportunities to succeed. There is a direct link between workplace advancement and access to networks of people who can open doors, provide access to critical assignments and who are willing to use their influence to help boost another’s career. Those relationships start at places like the exclusive men’s clubs in college.

It is those crucial ties that underlie the slow pace of women’s advancement and continued inequality in compensation. The challenges women face do not arise only when women hit management levels, nor can they be resolved simply by exhorting women to do more, be more, try more.

Wealthy alumni of Harvard who guide their college-aged proteges until they are ready to take over the reins of power are no different than the businessmen who sit in the country club locker room, dining and drinking as they propose deals and offer opportunities. As long as women are forced to occupy the rented spaces and second-rate locker rooms, the doors to the mansions — and access to equal opportunities — will remain closed to them.

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Lauren Stiller Rikleen Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

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