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Martha Burk to IBM at Augusta: Women Saw That

Friday, April 6, 2012

No, Virginia Rometty, the new female CEO of IBM, was not offered the "green jacket" of admission to Augusta National Golf Club. And Big Blue did nothing. Women are still shut off this power turf and can be shunned even if they're CEOs.

Subhead: 
No, Virginia Rometty, the new female CEO of IBM, was not offered the "green jacket" of admission to Augusta National Golf Club. And Big Blue did nothing. Women are still shut off this power turf and can be shunned even if they're CEOs.




Martha Burk(WOMENSENEWS)--Well, the big day for the big boys at Augusta National Golf Club came and went without a woman showing up in the green jacket that denotes membership. The particular woman in question was Virginia Rometty, CEO of IBM, the leading corporate sponsor of Augusta's Masters Golf Tournament.

For those who don't follow news of puffed-up men chasing little balls around a green course, the club has always been male-only, and resisted extreme pressure nine years ago from women's groups, led by the National Council of Women's Organizations, to open up to female members.

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The debate raged for nearly a year, complete with death threats to the NCWO chair, yours truly.

Much of the argument centered on whether the club had the "right to remain private" (translate "engage in discrimination at will").

A secondary issue was the role of corporate sponsors in supporting the club's exclusion of women and the statement that made about corporate values.

The newly kindled attention this year was due to IBM's appointment of Rometty last January. IBM's CEOs have always been accorded the green jacket. But IBM's CEOs have always been male. What a difference a woman can make.

Would a Dinosaur Die?

In the run-up to the tournament there was much press speculation as to whether the club would at last dump their dinosaur image and admit Rometty. If not, what would IBM do? We found out on Thursday.

IBM--which consistently scores high on women-friendly biz rankings--did nothing, and in doing nothing they swallowed their company integrity and trashed Rometty.

Their silence sent a message loud and clear: "We respect the boys at Augusta National Golf Club more than we respect our female CEO."

To add insult to injury, some news outlets were reporting that Rometty would attend the tournament to "entertain clients."

Women such as Rometty are breaking barriers every day in corporate America, thanks to 30 years of hard work by the organized women's movement.

We got the laws changed so that discrimination at work is illegal. We got the government to require that contractors institute affirmative action in hiring and promotion, and to report the number of women, men, and people of color in every job category (but unfortunately not pay gaps).

The challenge remains, however, to break the stubborn barriers like Augusta National that wrap themselves in the mantle of "tradition." Tradition has been used to justify discrimination of all types since time immemorial.

Some have asked why one golf club matters, and what if Rometty herself doesn't care about being a member (and just incidentally having to don an icky green jacket).

Why It Matters

Augusta National Golf Club Green JacketsNo. 1: It's not about golf. Half of Augusta's membership (which reads like a roster of Fortune 500 CEOs) probably doesn't even care about golf, but the members do care about power relationships.

According to Fortune magazine, "golf remains the true communications hub of America's business elite." Courses like Augusta and the ancillary activities that surround them are where careers are made, deals are made, and membership in the "club" signifies equal status with other titans of business.

No. 2: Whether Rometty personally cares about the club is beside the point, and it most definitely should not be her responsibility to solve this "problem" by toeing some company-provided line and saying she doesn't want to join.

The point is that the board of directors of one of the world's most powerful corporations is allowing their female CEO to be diminished in the name of – well – the "boy's club."

She may be good enough to put out front as head of the company, but she's not really good enough to be an equal member of the power elite. Have they thought about how this will play out in other venues, like those where Rometty has to face other CEOs in business negotiations?

Big Blue has stumbled big time, and let's hope they hear about it from stockholders, female employees, and the public it depends on for those dollars it spends at Augusta underwriting sex discrimination.

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Martha Burk directs the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations. Her new book is Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman's Guide to Power, Politics, and the Change We Need.