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How to Survive Academia--Old Boys Club Edition


If you also are a woman who works in old boys’ club academia, these are for you. They are based on my colleagues’ and my recent personal experiences. On our campus, the chancellor and all school deans are White men. Even the dean of nursing, a field that is 91% female, is a man. I do not know the average age of our old boys; however, the Chancellor, who has been in his position for over 15 years, is in his mid-70s. I hope you find these tips helpful even if your institution is more diverse, and your old boys are younger.


Review your institution’s dress code, which is detailed for women. For example, no spaghetti straps are allowed. Tantalizing parts must be covered--especially your silky shoulders. Men have more leeway; they are not specifically prohibited from wearing sheer tops. Do feel free to wear Star Wars panties, or a lace thong underneath your maxi dress.

Know that fashion trends do not translate. They will not understand that sneakers can be worn everywhere now. For your leaders, suits from 1985-1995 are the most appropriate work attire. Ties with university colors are always on trend.


Sometimes an old boy does not directly ask you something, but will be expecting a reaction. If you do not agree or do not want to volunteer, try a look instead of talking. At a minimum you will need:

  1. Polite smile with/without head nod; and

  2. Blank expression with a hint of disgust in your eyes.

When your department chair says, “We are overdue for a department meeting,” do not feel bad that the department has met only twice in five years, and offer to set it up. Use expression # 1, polite smile with head nod, instead.

If a couple of old boys ask you to work on something with them, do not respond quickly. Use expression #1 without a head nod, followed by a “let me think about it.” Make sure you are not being asked to help them clean up a mess they made.


Your old boy may remind you of your dad or grandfather; however, be careful with your kindness. You may have the urge to bring him a coffee before a meeting. Resist. It is a slippery slope that could turn into an expectation or dependence. If your old boy is in his 70s, he may not be computer savvy. Do not feel bad for him, and print out, and help him reply to his emails. If he cannot figure out how to use Zoom for class, refer him to IT. Remember, you also are navigating a pandemic, and people expect more from you than from him, even though he earns twice the salary.

Committee Meetings

Everyone knows that old boys hold meetings because they are lonely, like to appear on top of things, or want other people to do their work. When you go to their meetings, bring one piece of paper and a pen. If you bring a notebook or laptop, an old boy will ask you to take the minutes. Do not volunteer for more than a couple of action items during the meeting. At the next meeting, you and female colleagues will be the only ones who have completed them. Better to leave work undone than do it all for your old boys, and have them take the credit.

After a meeting in which a decision did not go his way, an old boy may come to see you. He may tell you your boss agrees with him. He may say he knows secret details about the situation, but he cannot talk about them. Spend as little time as possible discussing the issue with the old boy. Old boys often have spare time during the workday, but you do not.


Interrupt old boys who interrupt you or other women. Jump in when there is a hint of air. On the outside, use one of the expressions you have been practicing. On the inside, you are Maxine Waters “reclaiming your time.”


If an old boy comments on your body or makes you feel uncomfortable, learn to avoid him. When he asks, “Have you lost weight, you look good?” use expression #2 with or without answering. If you tell the superior old boy, you will be labeled overly sensitive, or be disappointed by the lack of action.

If you do decide to take further action, you will find out that the campus Title IX coordinator is the old boy vice chancellor you only met once when he yelled at you for taping a letter paper-sized meeting sign on a wall without his permission. He wears a suit from 1982, and has perfected a third expression--scowl with do not bother me eyes. This expression is off limits to women regardless of your position in the org chart.


Fight for the highest pay possible when you start; you will rarely or never get a raise unless a high up old boy wants to waive his magic wand. You can collect evidence that your pay is out of line with others at your level, but you will be told to wait for an answer until after the equity study is completed. Unfortunately, Human Resources is two years behind in conducting the study because of turnover. Once the study has been completed, inequities will continue but look different.

When you are promoted to director of a campus wide office, you will be told you will not be paid as much as other directors. If you discover your male colleagues with identical credentials are better paid, the old-boy-in-chief will ask “Doesn’t your husband make a good living?”

Do not fill in a gap left by an old boy without compensation. If you cannot bear to see how it is affecting the work or others, ask for additional compensation for taking on a responsibility that is his. At the very least, ask for assistance so you can get help with your assigned and unassigned duties.

Career Planning

If working in the old boys’ club is impacting your work or health, consider finding a job in a better institution or another field. Or suing. Old boys do not see the need for new tricks, and there is no way to know how long a campus will remain their club. Recent sexual assault scandals at the main campus may have you thinking that time has come for change; however, you have not seen any response from the Board of Supervisors (80% male) that goes beyond managing risk. It is impossible to know if scandals at other state institutions will spur change.

Final Thoughts

Please share these survival tips with other women and outsiders. Do not share them with old boys. I do not want trouble for my colleagues or me. The old boys will not say that is why I am trouble. They will find another reason to get rid of me, retaliate when I stand up for myself, and then cover it all up. Like they did to the two women who were attorneys in the Compliance Office.

Note: This piece was written in May 2021, and is correct up to that date.

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