Once upon a time, a middle-aged male dean went to the women's equity organization on a college campus to give a talk about campus service and administration. The dean was a man of good will, and interested in helping women on campus. The talk was attended by a variety of people, men and women, students, staff, and faculty. One of the women asked the dean how he'd gotten started moving into administration, and he said that he'd been on the back porch of an administrator friend drinking bourbon with the guys, and the administrator had suggested he might be interested in being a deanling. And so he'd been appointed.
The dean, of course, meant well, and he hadn't (I'm sure) thought at all about how his ability to be part of the back porch power group contributed to his movement up the ladder, and at the same time prevented women from having those opportunities. And no one said anything to the dean or at the meeting, though afterwards a small group of women faculty who'd been there discussed the comment.
At every campus where I've been even minimally aware of administrative politics, there's been a back porch power group (or more), always male. At NWU, the back porch power groups (there are at least two, at different levels) choose men to appoint to deanling and interim positions, and the men then apply for the real positions, and pretty much inevitably get them. (From where I sit, it makes our "national" searches look like a exercise in waste and dishonesty. I've been told that we've actually offered jobs to people from outside, but couldn't pay them enough; funny, we can pay our porch-selected men plenty.)
Women try, with limited success so far, to fight the system. In one case, a fair bit of discussion led to the administration actually adopting a policy of announcing a position and allowing applications, rather than just announcing that an interim or deanling had been chosen. And one of those positions has gone to a woman. So there's some success, but it's limited, despite some pretty politically savvy women working hard.
One of the back porch power groups is pretty visible from my office. I first realized that it was a power group when one of the members (let's call him Joe Doe) basically said, "the guys were discussing [issue X] on the porch last week over cigars*, and we decided we should do [Y]." And Y had been done without further campus discussion. When I asked Joe why they thought they could decide an issue on the porch in an all male group, he looked astonished, and a little hurt. They (he) hadn't thought about it as an issue; there were a lot of people there and they'd just decided.
(There is one woman allowed on their porch, I will say. But Joe has told me that he just doesn't think they want another woman around. Yeah, I sort of blew up about that.)
Now, I think Joe is well-meaning. I don't think he considers himself a sexist, nor does he want to be a sexist. He's hurt that I think the porch group is sexist, that I don't trust them when he thinks I should (in a sort of paternalistic way). Joe has pretty much stopped mentioning the porch group around me. He knows it's a problem, but it's an important part of his access to power, his social scene, and his privilege, and he doesn't want to question it or give it up.
Why, Joe says, shouldn't he socialize with the people he wants to hang out with?
I understand not wanting to give up privilege. But, if I were a member of an all white group that explicitly didn't want any person of color around, and someone called me on it and told me we were being racists, I hope to hell I would take a good long look at myself and say, "Self, you're being racist. Stop now, tell the group so, and either change the group or leave."
The socializing thing may be harder for me to answer. I'm a member of a sports team made up (usually) of female members of my department. (I say usually because a high school male is participating for me while I'm gone, and another male has participated in the past, and a couple men have subbed when someone else was ill or something.) I'm a member of a casual reading group that's all female, and mostly faculty members from across campus. In each of those groups, we do discuss campus issues, and in the reading group, we've encouraged people to run for various faculty committee jobs and offered to nominate each other.
So is there a difference other than the fact that my groups don't include anyone with real power on campus?
It's good for me to be away from campus for a bit, in part because it gives me a chance to think about things without being confronted with them or having to act on them immediately. I need to work out a couple things. First, I need to not let the back porch thing irritated me as much as it has, because my being irritated doesn't change anything and just makes me unhappy. Second, I need to figure out what I can work to change, and if it's worth doing that work.
*The back porch group sounds like a return to the 50s, in a sort of straight white male fantasy of 50s academia where they can hang out, smoke cigars and drink.