Joining the Boys’ Club When You’re a Woman

Boys' club at work | CorporetteShould you join the office boys’ club if you’ll be the only woman? What if your male coworkers meet and talk shop outside of work while taking part in an activity — such as tennis or golf — that you don’t even like? Reader K, who works outside of the U.S., wonders:

I have a question regarding the ‘old boy’s club’ at work; my workplace is fairly conservative, with only 15% of the workforce women (although the number is increasing in the younger generation), but quite politically correct and thus nothing seriously sexist or misogynist. My male boss, in his mid-50s, has been fantastic to work with, and as a recruit (from a different company, relocating quite a distance), I’ve been happy with my position and also see potential in the company itself. BUT, after three years, I see that there is a ‘boy’s club’, where they get together and play tennis, have a beer, and get things done. My boss has even suggested that I join the tennis club (playing once a week or so) — but I’ll be the only female and really don’t like tennis. What would you do?

Tough question, K. We’ve talked about networking with older men, dealing with sexist coworkers, and whether or not to pick up the tab at lunch with a group of male partners, but not specifically about this topic. I’d ask myself a few questions first:

  • How long do you plan to stay at the company? If you hope to stay at this company for a while, I’d definitely join the tennis club, at least to give it a try. When in Rome…
  • Is the industry in general like this? Even if you don’t like this particular company, if this is the way that everybody networks, I’d join the tennis club.
  • Are there other ways to network with the guys after hours other than the tennis club?

So in general, I guess I’m in favor of joining. Here’s what I like about the tennis club (although I’ll admit I’m picturing an American version of one):  It’s brightly lit. Alcohol is optional. Women who work there aren’t sex objects. Yes, you might feel obligated to wear a tennis skirt, but that too is optional, and the clothes are otherwise pretty conservative. Compared to some boys’ club cultures where guys go to, say, a strip club, or some other dimly-lit place where the focus is alcohol (or drugs) and scantily-clad waitresses, this sounds pretty mundane to me. (And if you stink at tennis, you can always take private lessons on the side to get better.) I’d at least give it a shot and then evaluate the situation with the new information.

Besides, while you note that you’ll be the only woman there, a) I assume you mean from your company. If this is how networking is done in your area, wouldn’t you like to know the other women ballsy enough to join the men’s tennis club? Furthermore, b) change has to start somewhere. You note that your generation has increasing percentages of women in the workplace — think of the women who come after you. When presented with this situation, it’ll be easier for them knowing that you are already a member of the club.

I’m curious, ladies — what are your thoughts? Would you join a tennis club or other after-hours extracurricular you didn’t enjoy — in order to “keep up” with the guys you work with and stay in the loop?

(Pictured: ACA, originally uploaded to Flickr by Tré Hinojosa.) 


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  1. annoyed, but accomplished :

    I actually think that the first question is if the OP plays tennis.

    I also think that this post doesn’t really address whether or not she feels confident or not enough in her athletic ability to perform on the court. I like playing soccer, running, yoga and swimming. But I am not doing those things in front of my coworkers– I’d be far too self conscious. Even more so at a sport I don’t play/enjoy/etc.

    • Wildkitten :

      It would be convenient if she was already great at tennis, but not playing isn’t a bar to participation. She can learn a new sport – she might even learn that she’s really good at it. I’d take a few lessons before I joined the company tournament.

    • That’s my read, too. Joining sounds like a good idea, but, if it were me, who knows absolutely nothing about tennis and is completely uncoordinated in every way possible, I just don’t think that I could bring myself to do it. I know that Kat suggested private lessons, which might work for some people with some natural athletic abilities, but, even if I started considering getting good at tennis my second job, I can’t really see it making me good enough to not embarrass myself. It’s more of an athlete/klutz issue than a man/woman issue, really, but the sex thing would certainly magnify it.

      I don’t have a better answer, either, though.

      • Same, by a certain point in life, some of us just know that we are not coordinated enough to not embarrass ourselves in these situations, full stop.

  2. I am meh on fake hobbies if you think they’ll make you fit in. If, on the other hand, you think that you will really enjoy this, then by all means, join. I will say that mixed doubles with only one woman is exceedingly rare (e.g. two men on one side, a mixed team on the other), and often tennis groups already have pretty set foursomes, so breaking into tennis might be harder than you think, just based on the dynamics of the sport. That said, it’s great exercise and you will make new friends if you join workouts or find your own game. I think it would be really naive to think they’ll just invite you into their game if you join the tennis club though. Good luck–I’ve definitely been the only woman at a number of my jobs, and it’s hard.

  3. In my industry (finance), you’ll be even further relegated to the sidelines if you aren’t good at the sport in question. So I’d factor that in too.

    • SuziStockbroker :

      This (also in finance).

      Can you play tennis?

      There is no way I would play golf with my colleagues.

      Of course, that is not the only old boys’ network stuff they do either.

      • I show up to the clubhouse bar after a round for their round (finance also, here). I was once thanked for “showing initiative” and doing that even though I don’t golf.

    • In my industry (WC law), it is realy a man’s world, but we women HAVE to do what we can to break in. So the manageing partner insists that I come to all conference’s and also prepare HIS materials, but he is giveing me the chance to speak on the dais with him at a conference soon, he say’s b/c he is not goeing to be workeing forever and now that I am the cochair of the department, I have to show the cleint’s that I am a go getter.

      We also have a firm volleyball team that I am on that the manageing partner always invites cleint’s to participate in — even the judge come’s to our games –the manageing partner say’s he was a big athelete in the 1960’s and he likes to watch the women still even tho he is now probabley almost 70 year’s old. The manageing partner say’s he is still interested in doeing thing’s with women other then his wife. I say FOOEY to that!

      I think that we women MUST do whatever it take’s so that we are NOT just viewed as pretty thing’s on the sidelines. That is why I am so good at volleyball. My college in DC had inermural’s and I alway’s played with the men watcheing but I did NOT care if they were just lookeing at my tuchus or boobie’s. I think it helped me to become the profesional that I am today! Yay!!!!

    • That could definitely be a problem. But I’m still in favour of joining especially since this is a situation where an invitation has been extended and this seems like the only networking activity that her co-workers participate in. The bar is always higher if one feels a little left out of the group but no one seems to be willing to include them. I see this as a situation where putting in a little effort might have some payoff later on.

  4. Regarding Kat’s point b) change has to start somewhere, and the idea that this reader can blaze a trail for the other women by letting them know she’s already in the tennis club, my hope would be instead that by virtue of adding more women to her workplace, she wouldn’t feel that she had to be part of the tennis club. I had this exact issue at my (all male, other than myself) law firm, but with golf. I have no desire to play golf. The ideal situation, years from now, is not that we all strong-arm our way into the golf group or the tennis club, but that there are so many of us that the important decisions are no longer being made at the tennis club– they are being made at our own extracurricular gatherings, whatever they may be. Let the men join that, if they want, but I just wanted to point out that the ideal is not to make it easy for women to join the tennis club; the ideal is for us not to feel as if we have to in the first place.

    • Senior Attorney :

      That’s true, but for the moment the decisions are indeed being made at the tennis club or on the golf course, so one absents oneself at one’s peril. (Also don’t think for a moment that all those guys just love to play golf.)

      I think MJ and Anon at 1:33 p.m. above have good points about how it’s not all that easy to just show up and be part of the tennis gang. Maybe join the club, go at the same time they do, but spend your tennis time taking private lessons and then join them for beer afterwards?

      • +1 — “one absents oneself at one’s peril.” I’d really think twice about staying with a company where a sport that I can’t play or don’t like is a very important means of networking. It’s hard to do well if you don’t fit into the office culture.

      • Agreed. It’s a nice idea, but for the time being, networking is being done at the tennis club. There will always be after-hours networking of some sort, whether it’s playing tennis, unofficial happy hours at a bar, golf, strip clubs, whatever. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to opt in or opt out from those activities.

        In my experience, I’ve found that I build up more credibility to recommend change (and actually implement that change) to the “boys club” if I’ve included myself in their unofficial networking events. YMMV.

        • anonymous :

          Agree with Senior Attorney. At a former employer, the guys (including the CFO and his peers) did lunch weekly at a dim sum restaurant. No women ever went. I “invited” myself and found that I was welcome. And then I was asked – by other women – how to get an invite, and they also got invitations. It was a great boost to my understanding of the culture and becoming part of the team.

          • Anonymous :

            Sadly, in my firm (finance), it is abundantly clear, and explicitly stated, that the (few) women are NOT welcome.

          • anonymous :

            Yeah, this was a finance firm too and 90% male (100% at upper levels). But the CFO was my supporter – I think mainly because his wife was a bank president and he knew the challenges that she faced daily. The rest of the men all had stay-at-home wives and couldn’t relate to a woman whose husband was a stay-at-home dad!

    • I wonder if this could be applicable to the OP. It’s not like two people can really talk business across the tennis court, I’d think. I wonder if she could say she’s not much of a tennis player but she’d love to stop by the club for dinner, whatever afterward.

    • annoyed, but accomplished :

      this much more clearly states what I watned to say!

    • Great comment!

      I have the same issue with golf as the OP does with tennis. I tried for years – and spent lots of my personal time and money – taking lessons and trying to learn. I stink; I hate it; when I did go with the guys, I was so bad that they asked me not to even try after the first couple holes.

      There’s also men’s basketball which I’m not invited to, and coed tennis which they told me I’m not good enough for.

      I do lots of other sports – running, yoga, backpacking, horseback riding – for whatever that’s worth. Just not the correct corporate ones.

      In the end, it comes down to this: I am too old (and respect myself too much) to do things that I hate just to make other people happy.

      • B – I totally agree with you. I’ve tried for years to be good at golf, but it’s a pricey sport that takes years to learn and it was easier to just change law firms.

      • +1 Perfectly stated.

  5. Further thoughts (I’m the anon at 1:33pm) – if you’re planning women-focused events, be cognizant of how they appear to the guys. I just attended the major conference in my industry focus, and the women-focused reception events for the last couple years have been shopping and/or make-up events. So, yeah, you’re networking and it’s fun, but unfortunately, it highlights trite stereotypes we may not want to encourage.

    No one blinked an eye at the reception advertised as employing female models to serve drinks. . .

    • + 1 I think this could be similar to the boys’ club the only difference is that tennis can appeal to both sexes, but most men are not into shopping or makeup events.

    • Senior Attorney :

      I always think a cooking class is a great “woman focused event.” I went to a conference where they divided the participants into teams and made it a cooking competition and everybody (men and women alike) just loved it.

    • Blue Anne :

      This was evident within the first week of my job at a Big 4 firm. They hire about 20 new grads to start at once in the 3 offices in my region every year. One of new women at another office told me that the 2nd year guys at her office had immediately arranged a casual soccer game with the 1st year guys as a bonding thing, without inviting her or the other new woman in the office. When she asked why the girls hadn’t been invited, she was told “Oh, I’m sure the women will organize shopping or something.” Said female colleague has actually played soccer semi-professionally in the past, their loss!

      At the same event where she told me that story, the middle aged male partner who was welcoming us to the firm stood up and said (during his welcome briefing) that there is a Women’s Network in the firm but he thinks it’s condescending and unnecessary and he was sure it would be gone in a few years. Oh yup, totally unnecessary, no sexism here at all. Depressing.

    • I missed the women’s networking event at Jimmy Choo, but it definitely illustrates your point.

      The best part about that other reception at JPM was that the company that held it was stalking me to get a meeting with me, but then mysteriously, the invites to the reception only went to my male co-workers. Actually, no, the best part was a notoriously blunt and widely read reporter calling them out for holding that reception.

  6. I don’t play tennis and the few times I tried, I was laughably bad. Still, if I wanted to stay at this employer long term and eventually move up the ranks, I would take some lessons and then join. Even if I am still a horrible tennis player, I can laugh with the guys and be seen as a team player.

    If decisions are made at the tennis club, you gotta be at the tennis club. It isn’t fair and it isn’t good for working mothers and it isn’t a lot of things, but that is how it is.

    Her boss has invited her to join; he wants her to come to the table. Passing up the invitation could be interpreted as, “nah, that’s okay, I don’t care enough about this job to want to be promoted or stick around.”

  7. I think joining is a no-brainer in this situation. Yes, maybe take a few lessons first to get a feel for how you hold a racket, etc., but if this is how people at work spend their time and you otherwise like the company and see a future there, then you figure out a way to participate (and you’ve already been invited!!). I hate all sports, but I have gone to my share of baseball games with my boss and coworkers because that’s just what you do even if I’d rather go to the dentist personally. I can’t stand golf, but we have an annual charity tournament and I volunteer every year to help organize it (this way I don’t have to play) because again it’s a great opportunity to network and show commitment.
    I am surprised at the comments that say if you don’t like it, don’t do it. Would you say the same thing if OP wasn’t a woman but a guy who grew up in a very different culture and wrote in to say he hates tennis, can’t play and doesn’t want to learn but should he still go?

  8. Half the people there prob dont like tennis that much. This is a no brainer- its not like you have to akwardly figure out a way to invite yourself. you should accept the invitation.

  9. After being in the military for 20 years, my advice is to pick up a racket and make the effort. I stink at tennis, and basketball and golf, but if that is what my unit was playing that day, I laced up my shoes and gave it a try. “You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there” — sometimes just showing up is what you need.

    As to the “what would you say if this were a man asking the question”, most guys would say “man up, it’s just tennis and it will help your career, what’s the big dilemma???” Men tend not to analyze things the way we do. They look at the problem, make a decision, and drive on.

    • Totally agree with this! I have been on several softball teams for my company or for the local engineering league, participated in golf charity events, gone to work bowling parties, etc over the years. I am not particularly good at any of these sports. Showing up and having a good attitude is the most important part. The networking and connections you make are worth it. You might even have fun!

  10. Miss Take :

    I once worked at a firm where the Old Boys Club was a men-only softball league.

    Join. At least you have the option. Exercise it.

  11. I say go and if you hate it or are a total disaster at tennis and don’t want to do lessons, then join after for a beer or whatever other adjacent social activity takes place.

    To this day, I am still super pissed when I was excluded from a Boys Club event. For a part of law school I clerked at a small firm that was entirely men except for the admin. They all did a “warrior dash” event and I was not invited. They invited all the rest of the clerks, who were all men, and talked about it in front of me. I lift and regularly do half-marathons. I’m not saying my athletic prowess is equal to a man but I was certainly in better shape the overweight middle aged men who were invited to go.

    I wasn’t as confident or assertive back then as I am now and I didn’t say anything but stewed in silence. Today, I would have been like why didn’t you invite me? Or said something to make them all feel very uncomfortable. It was a great learning experience though. I never sat in the main partner’s office and “shot the sh*t” with them. I thought it was more important to put my head down and work hard.

  12. I just want to add, it’s totally possible that some of the men will suck WAY MORE than you but happen to have a much thicker skin about it. I play in a “coed” work sports league, which consists of other guys plus me plus the few (literally, between 1 and 3) women I can recruit from season to season. I desperately try to convince other women that they will be fine so long as they can run for a few minutes, because the guys barely can but still think they’re great! I have very few takers…but I keep trying. So go out there and laugh off your mistakes, and maybe you’ll actually have a good time. Good luck!

  13. At least learn about tennis and follow the pros so you can participate in the discussions of the sport. Re the male softball league: I know a female attorney who became the “manager” for her firm’s team and attended every game and all the post-game networking.

  14. YOU GOT AN INVITE! How can you even be debating this? I can’t tell you how many times I watch the men at my firm go skiing, biking, golfing, watching professional sports games together and I only get to hear about it as I pass by their conversations reminiscing about how much fun they had. I wish I got an invite, even though I don’t play any of those sports and I don’t like watching football. You were being included. How can you turn that opportunity down. It would undermine any claim that women have that they are not given opportunities to break into the “old boys club.”

  15. CorporateInCarhartt :

    This is really timely. I got asked today by a partner I do a lot of work for whether, with “all my other outdoor activities,” I’d like to go golfing with him. I have very limited experience and don’t have any of the gear, and would need to take lessons (and am not even sure I like it), but, reading the comments above, I feel like this is an opportunity that I shouldn’t turn down. The partner specifically said that he’ll golf with anyone, regardless of skill level, and recommended a place in town to take lessons. So that takes some of the pressure to be perfect off of me. Thanks to all those who commented above, because I was on the fence before! Golfing it is!

  16. Westcoastjd :

    I would just add to all of the sage comments above that, as a unathletic person who has attempted (poorly) both activities, I find that tennis is much easier to play casually (especially in doubles) than golf, particularly if you are left-handed.

  17. TAKE LESSONS! I’ve been taking tennis lessons since September and while I have no real natural talent for the sport and had literally never held a racquet before my first class, I feel like I could play (not win) a casual match with a colleague or client. For now, I just play with a couple other young professional women who are just learning, which is great for our confidence and gives us time to network with/support each other. I’m thinking of doing the same thing with golf, although it doesn’t appeal to me as much.

  18. In-House Europe :

    This is a little long, and a little late, but I wanted to share my sport story! So, when I was just starting out in-house (at the time in Asia), the other members of the legal department (who were not only male but 30 years older than me) needed a female to join a round of golf because they had invited a woman to join (she was at the time in-house counsel at a very impressive company and they were trying to schmooze) -and this being Asia they couldn’t have just one female and the rest men. I had mentioned that I had taken a few lessons while in law school so they invited me.

    What I didn’t realize was that everyone else playing had a ridiculously low handicap. Like, 3. Or 5. And mine was…30? So they are speeding through each hole and I’m trying to hit my ball out of the brush on the side again and again. Then it started to rain. I learned golf in a very sunny place – if it rains, you pack up and go home. There? Everyone got out their rain gear and continued. I had no rain gear (oh and I had purchased men’s golf shoes to meet the course requirements as I couldn’t get women’s shoes in my size in that country). So I just played in the rain, soaked through.

    What happened? Well, I wasn’t invited to golf again. BUT – I was complemented repeatedly over the years for sticking with it in the rain. And I made a valuable contact – the woman with whom we golfed and I still keep in touch.

    So looong story short – do it! :)

  19. Reader K responding here. Very late, but I wanted to thank everyone for their comments and give an update–
    over the past few months I’ve decided to accept an offer from my hometown, and am now in my final two weeks here with my tennis-club boss. He’s been very gracious about my decision, and after reading Kat and your comments, I feel like I did miss a great opportunity for myself as well as other female associates here. However, I will keep all your comments in mind–will be ready to tackle any old boys’ club from now on!

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