Skip to main content

Let women into Augusta golf club

By Martha Burk, Special to CNN
April 3, 2012 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
Demonstrators gather during Masters week demonstrations outside the gates of Augusta National Golf Club in 2003.
Demonstrators gather during Masters week demonstrations outside the gates of Augusta National Golf Club in 2003.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Martha Burk: Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters, doesn't admit women
  • But this year the CEO of IBM, a major sponsor whose CEOs are given membership, is a woman
  • She says this puts IBM in a bind: Should it ditch sponsorship if CEO not admitted? She says yes
  • Burk: It's IBM's directors' responsibility to insist their CEO be treated like "one of the boys"

Editor's note: Martha Burk is a political psychologist and an expert on women's issues. She is co-founder of the Center for Advancement of Public Policy, a research and policy analysis organization in Washington, and director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations. She serves as the money editor for Ms. magazine. Her latest book is "Your Voice, Your Vote: The Savvy Woman's Guide to Power, Politics, and the Change We Need."

(CNN) -- Well, well. The boys at Augusta National Golf Club -- members and sponsors alike -- are in a big bind. Nine years after I led an unsuccessful effort by the National Council of Women's Organizations to open membership in the club to women, the "woman problem" is back.

This time it involves Virginia Rometty, the first female chief executive of IBM. IBM is a major sponsor of Augusta National's Masters Golf Tournament, and up to now its CEOs have always been given membership in the club. But none has ever been a woman. So what happens now -- will Augusta National open its doors to women? Or will IBM pull its sponsorship and force its other executives to resign their club memberships?

Martha Burk
Martha Burk

These are the only two real choices.

We've said all along that this is not about golf. It is about access to the places where big business is done, deals are made and careers are boosted or broken. 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."

Back in 2003 when opposition to the all-male policy was making headlines, I got two calls from sponsors who said they were "in dialogue" with the club. The first was from Coca-Cola, saying its board was going to make a decision after talking to "Warren (Buffett) and Sam (Nunn)," board members who were also Augusta members. I was promised a call in the next two or three days. I'm still waiting.

Erin Burnett's essay on Ginnie Rometty

My second call was much more hostile. It was from IBM, telling me my organization was "forcing" them to do something they didn't want to do, and generally dressing me down for making an issue of the bald-faced sexism that their sponsorship supported.

A few days later Hootie Johnson, then chairman of Augusta National, stepped to a microphone and announced the club was releasing its sponsors, broadcasting the tournament without commercials. The boys had clearly made a deal that went like this: We'll "release" you as sponsors, you'll keep your mouths shut, and when all this woman stuff blows over you can quietly come back. Two of the three did not return (IBM was the exception), but none of the sponsors ever condemned the male-only policy at Augusta National.

IBM is surely scrambling for what it hopes will be another face-saving deal. The CBSSports.com senior golf columnist Steve Elling predicts that club Chairman Billy Payne will offer Rometty a membership a few days after the Masters ends next week: "She shows up at the tournament in 2013 in green, after the gender issue has died down. That way, the club avoids the appearance that Payne has been backed into a corner or forced into making an accommodation."

Sorry, but that dog won't hunt. Telling Rometty to be a good girl and wait a little longer with IBM's collusion would be a disaster -- not only for the company's image, but for Rometty's credibility as its leader. Elling's scenario would scream that IBM values the relationship with a club that proudly discriminates more than it values its own integrity -- or its first female CEO.

What if, on the other hand, Rometty makes an announcement that she's not interested in membership? That won't work either. It would be widely assumed that she was under pressure from the company to make such a statement, and in the bargain accept her second-class status. After all, CEOs (male and female) don't get where they are by making waves. But fixing this shouldn't be put on her. It's the responsibility of the board of directors to insist that their CEO be treated exactly like -- well -- one of the boys.

Besides, whether she would accept a membership is completely irrelevant to the question of the appropriateness of the club's all-male policy and IBM's tacit support of it, and it doesn't get the club out of its bind anyway. Before she can reject a membership, she has to be offered one. If Augusta National admits it was prepared to make an offer but she wouldn't accept, it has admitted that membership is open to women, and it will immediately be asked who the next candidate will be and when. If the club remains silent, IBM's problem reverberates louder.

And saying the gender issue will die down is wishful thinking. The women's movement opened the doors to the executive suites for women like Rometty with 30 years of hard work that made sex discrimination in hiring and promotion in corporate America illegal. If we hadn't raised the ruckus in 2003, you can bet it wouldn't be front and center now. And though we haven't succeeded yet, we won't stop until females are treated equally in corporate-supported venues like Augusta National Golf Club, or until those companies are shamed into pulling support.

If this were about race discrimination and a black (male) CEO, IBM surely wouldn't be in the mix, and no other national sponsor would go near this club. But it's only the girls -- and sex discrimination is just not as serious. Or is it?

We're listening for IBM's answer.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Martha Burk.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT