The Old Girls’Network: The Politics of Exclusion


Evelina Silveira

President, Diversity at Work Communications Training

Three Smiling Businesswomen

It is rarely discussed, usually only in private circles.  You won’t see it headlining any diversity conferences on women in leadership or bias.  But, the “Old Girls’ Network” is alive and well, functioning as an elitist, exclusionary club of sameness much like its counterpart,  “The Old Boys’ Network.” 

Having worked for over 15 years in predominately female-led organizations before starting my business, I have seen firsthand how these toxic networks operate.  Valuing likeness, adoration, organizational fit over skills rather than innovation and diversity of thought.  The insecure female executive leading the Network prefers the cloak of blandness and familiarity with admiring females who will not challenge her leadership rather than accepting different views or improving the organization.

Does this sound familiar at all?  It has all of the features of systemic discrimination, but it is not politically correct to talk about it.  After all, the traditional narrative is that men hold women back.  In some cases, they do. However, we cannot overlook in far too many female lead organizations, barring other women from professional and social networks is just as discriminatory.  Old Girls’ Networks should not get a pass any more than their male counterparts.

Those who are fortunate to be accepted into the “Old Girls’ Network” can expect specific rewards.

  • promotions you don’t deserve because the boss thinks you are easier to manage than the other employees who are more vocal with their opinions and disagree
  • achievement  awards that are based more on popularity than actual work or progress you have made
  • entry into female executives’ social circle
  • gain social capital among your peers

If you are an “outsider,”  you can expect:

  • to be considered “difficult” or a “problem.”
  • being monitored more closely than others –trying to find a time where you slip up
  • to not be recognized for your achievements or ideas
  • to be passed up for promotions
  • to feel that you are more qualified than your boss
  • to be bullied and harassed by your boss and co-workers
  • to feel demoralized because no matter how well you try to get along with your boss and co-workers, you don’t  feel “included.”
  • your performance appraisals may include comments of a personal nature rather than your professional attributes or skills.

The “Old Girls’ Network”  is not specific to any group of women. I have seen it operate among many racial and ethnic groups. 

The politics of exclusion is rooted in insecurity and fear of losing power.  How strange it is that we speak about empowering women and girls, yet this contradictory, disempowering relic is allowed to go unchallenged?

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