Golf spilled from the sports pages to the front pages this week when Augusta National Golf Club announced that it has finally opened (make that cracked) its gates to women, and let Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore squeeze through.
As the former Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) who has been leading the decade-long fight to get the club to grant memberships to women, I was once again besieged with media, and given the chance to declare victory for the women’s movement. And it was a victory.
We had raised the issue and refused to let it die year after year. After hearing from many women at companies whose CEOs were members of the club, we facilitated lawsuits in their behalf for sex discrimination in employment, winning $80 million in settlements and agreements that their companies could no longer entertain at exclusionary venues like Augusta. Most importantly, we changed public opinion by changing the conversation from “the rights of men to have their own clubs” to the high-profile sex discrimination it was.
But will it be a long term victory? Let’s hope it’s more than the tokenism accorded to African-American men who were very reluctantly accepted by the club in 1990 after a controversy over racial exclusion. While no one knows exactly how many are members 22 years later, what is known is that it’s no more than a handful.
Musing about what happens next took me back to the high school I attended way back in 1956 in a small Texas town. Football was king then — the girls weren’t allowed to play sports. Their role was adoring cheerleader. All the boys were strong or good looking, and the popular girls were ornamental adoring sexy types. Winning was what it was about, and loyalty to “the team” was the most critical element in life. Your buddies depended on it, the coach depended on it, and even the image of the town depended on it. Stick together, exclude the unworthy, and you would always come out on top. It was straight out of “Friday Night Lights,” the popular TV series of a few seasons back.
So what does this have to do with Augusta National, where a full Fortune 500 roster of CEOs like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates hold memberships? It’s been just a different level of the same mentality, with “the girls” being unworthy and unwelcome non‑players except when cheerleading the boys or providing diversions. This past April, IBM’s new CEO, Virginia Rometty, was not offered a membership like her male predecessors, but instead brought to the tournament to “entertain clients.” That she was not inducted this week along with Rice and Moore was seen by the press as a move by the club to show that they did not bow to pressure from women’s groups and the bad press that resulted. God forbid it should look like women won.
The highest ranking woman at CBS told me that while she was never barred outright from the festivities during tournament week, she was strongly discouraged from making the trip to Augusta. (I know for a fact that the week is one of the busiest for prostitutes, who come by the vanload from Atlanta to service the patrons.) Is CBS an outlier? Hardly. When NCWO gave USA Today the previously secret list of Augusta National members, the world learned that the club is populated with many of the nation’s top executives, including CEOs , directors, and chairmen. Interlocking board memberships reached into over 1000 companies and major charities.
Carly Fiorina revealed in her book that when she started as a young exec at AT&T (a company with a long Augusta history), she had to go along with business meetings at strip clubs. Just like that small town football clique, it was all about the boys. She was routinely called a bimbo or a bitch, but rarely treated as an equal, even by male subordinates. If she fired someone, she was “vindictive,” while the guys were “decisive” if they cut somebody from the team. All in the past? Not so fast. Another Augusta company, Morgan Stanley, settled a multi‑million dollar sex discrimination lawsuit four years ago, brought on because male executives routinely entertained clients at strip clubs and all‑male golf outings, making the playing field decidedly uneven for females in the company.
Enter Augusta National gray eminence Warren Buffett, who has publicly warned his top executives not to be lemmings. He says many corporate scandals (and no doubt lawsuits like the one above) arise because activity that is wrong is accepted as normal behavior. According to Buffett, if well respected managers engage in questionable practices, the thinking is “it must be OK to do it,” and that’s wrong too. He urges his managers to take leadership and not go along. Trouble is, he doesn’t really mean it. Even though the club’s blatant exclusion of women became a national argument that played out on the front pages and lasted a decade, Buffett and his buddies never spoke out, and certainly didn’t desert “team Augusta” for something so trivial as the fairness principle. So what if women executives are left out of client entertainment at the world’s most prestigious golf club (aka an off-campus business venue), and we hire a few prostitutes during Masters Tournament week?
An attitude of sex discrimination from top management is one place where the “trickle down” theory works. Women at lower levels of all of these companies and many others continue to report that front line managers get the message. Females are lesser, and a little sex discrimination in pay or promotion, on even a pinch on the butt once in awhile is no big deal. The all‑male team is where the real action is.
So here’s a challenge to Warren Buffett and all the other uber business titans at Augusta National. Step up and say sex discrimination at the highest levels is wrong, and challenge your buddies in the Fortune 500 to join you in monitoring how well you’re doing in your own companies in paying and promoting women fairly. Start with that secretary who reportedly pays more taxes than you do, and go all the way up to the executive suite. If the numbers don’t add up for women, then change them and let the world know.
Fifty years after I left that Texas high school and ten years after the boys at Augusta stonewalled to defend an indefensible practice, it’s time those harmful “Friday Night Lights” of sex discrimination in corporate America are turned off.
Martha Burk is a political psychologist and women’s issues expert who is co-founder of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, a research and policy analysis organization in Washington, D.C. She serves as the Money Editor for Ms. magazine, and is a syndicated newspaper columnist and frequent blogger for Huffington Post. In January 2012 she launched a new national show on public radio, “Equal Time with Martha Burk.” Her latest book Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics, and the Change We Need (2012) is a Ms. magazine book selection. The 2008 edition won NM Book award for best political book of 2008. Follow Martha on Twitter @MarthaBurk. Click for more.