The old boys' club: Female physicians are often excluded from networking opportunities

By Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB, FEADV, FIADVL, IFAAD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published June 1, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Networking offers an informal platform to exchange information about opportunities; it has evolved as a necessary tool for enhancing one's career opportunities.

  • Women are often excluded from major business and academic decisions, especially when they are made over typically male-dominated recreational activities.

  • Healthcare professionals, regardless of their gender identity, must actively facilitate diverse networking opportunities, creating a workplace culture that values inclusivity and supports female peers.

Women make up the majority of medical school enrollees and health sector workers, yet their representation in leadership roles in academic medical institutions across the US remains significantly low. Only 28% of senior-level professors, 23% of department chairs, and 27% of medical school deans are women, per 2022 Association of American Medical Colleges data.[]

"As a woman in the field of academic medicine, I sometimes can't help but wonder if the so-called "boys' club" network is holding us back."

Alpana Mohta, MD, DNB

Many studies have shown that women face disparities in compensation and career advancement. And quite possibly, the networking avenues that men make use of so easily are just not as accessible to women.  

Benefits of networking for healthcare professionals

Networking has become an essential tool for career advancement in the healthcare industry. Studies such as one reported in EClinicalMedicine indicate that networking activities yield material professional benefits to participants—and those who do not participate are at a disadvantage.[]

One of the benefits of networking includes building trust and robust business associations. When you help someone in your network, you create an opportunity for them to return the favor in ways you might not expect.

This reciprocity strengthens your professional relationships and opens doors to new possibilities.

Another benefit is the opportunity to gain a new perspective. Expanding your network to include diverse individuals provides a constant stream of fresh and unique ideas—inspiring new and improved opportunities you may not have considered otherwise.

Perhaps the most gratifying benefit of networking is the ability to boost your career. Building a diverse network raises your professional profile, and with more contacts comes greater opportunity to receive invaluable career advice. Additionally, when more people know about you and your skills, it can lead to increased referrals and job opportunities. 

The role of boys' club practices in academic medicine

Although the term "boys' club" is difficult to define, its existence can be seen with men in leadership sharing camaraderie and exclusive privileges.[]

As the EClinicalMedicine writers note, fields like surgery, orthopedics, and radiology are particularly affected, trapping members in traditional, male-dominated meetings. Men's networking activities are considered vital to this culture and may perpetuate gender inequities in the field.

The gender networking gap

The EClinicalMedicine study revealed that women in academic medicine experienced discrimination during networking activities, which are usually dominated by men. According to the study authors, men often engage in informal professional interactions with other men over drinks, golfing, fishing, hunting, and visits to strip clubs. While women are also known to participate in these activities, these spaces are more likely to be male-dominated in a business sense.

A study by the Economics department at University of Essex also found some disturbing gender differences in strategic networking.[] The research found that men usually like to spend time with and work with other men. The study also showed that male supervisors are primarily friends with male colleagues, which may partially explain why men are more likely to be paid more and promoted more often compared with women.

When department heads promote their male friends, it can create an environment where the most qualified candidates are overlooked.

This institutionalized mentality leads to women being denied raises, promotions, respect, and leadership opportunities. 

The proverbial boys' club activity

Golf has been mentioned as the most common way for men to network, despite the fact that the sport is enjoyed by all gender identities. The researchers publishing in EClinicalMedicine stated that men acknowledge the absence of women from their informal professional interactions.

"It did not feel like we were actively excluding the women, but I can tell you that if there was a woman resident, she would not have been invited to the golf games."

Study participant, EClinicalMedicine

Challenges faced by women in networking

Women do attempt to socialize with their female colleagues, although many face caregiving responsibilities and time constraints that limit their efforts. The EClinicalMedicine researchers found that women's attempts to offer professional support to their female colleagues are often met with disapproval from men, leading to a double bind for women. 

Some women hesitate to help each other out, for fear their overtures will be "perceived as nepotism," as noted by one study participant. All of these factors translate to men having more opportunities to publish, make important decisions, and even receive extramural letters of recommendation.

Champion female-led networks

Female-led networks are groups or communities of women who come together to share information, provide professional support, and establish connections in their respective fields.

One such example is the American Medical Women's Association.[] 

Although women find comfort in informal interactions, these do not always lead to professional benefits. Deliberate efforts are needed to create and maintain opportunities for professionally oriented interactions among women. 

What this means for you

Promoting alternative networking opportunities and creating a more inclusive workplace culture can help address the exclusion of female physicians from “boys’ club” networks. This involves facilitating informal interactions and mentorships among women, encouraging male colleagues to support their female peers, adopting policies prioritizing diversity, and holding leaders accountable.

Read Next: Female leaders in medicine: A conversation with Dr. Monique Rainford
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