Victory! Augusta National Golf Club Admits Women At Last

by Gloria Feldt on August 21st, 2012
in Gender, Leadership, No Excuses, Power Tools and tagged , , , , , ,

Martha Burk has balls.  And thanks to her leadership, now at least two women will have the privilege of chasing golf balls around the Augusta National Golf Club’s manicured course.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier and former banker Darla Moore have become the first female members in the club’s 80-year history.

Burk, who for the last nine years persisted in organizing to gain membership for women in the club that represents the pinnacle of power and influence, can finally, deservedly, celebrate success.

Burk explained the history in Women’s eNews last April when the august male-only golf club once again refused to let a woman wear its vaunted green members’ jacket at its annual Masters Tournament:

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.

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.

Though I’m not a golfer, as I explained here, I’m well aware of the social, political, and business significance of golfing.

Boardroom Golf Institute founder Joan Cavanaugh’s passion for the sport comes from her belief in the importance of women “getting into the game” literally and figuratively.

When I interviewed her for the post and revealed my dismal golf performance, she gave me and other women this advice, “Get in the game and then change the game, move up the ladder. Go where things are and make them yours.”

But you can’t get into the game if they won’t let you into the club.

And to get into the club—into any seat of power–women must first see themselves as worthy of it, second must aspire to it, and third must advocate for themselves to be in it.

That’s why I was so disappointed that Rometty failed to push for women members despite sponsorship of the Masters Tournament by the company she helms.

For while Augusta as a private club might have the legal right to discriminate, it was still very wrong for them to exclude women. In doing so, they kept women from accessing a main source of power in business: the human connections that are made when 300 of the nation’s most powerful business leaders bond on Augusta’s greens and in its clubhouse.

So why did the seemingly sudden but oh-so-long-in-coming change come after so many years of resistance?  After all, there have been plenty of women well worthy of membership for many years, both for their golf prowess and their business clout.

And why did Augusta National chairman Billy Payne effuse, “This is a joyous occasion,” after being part of the resistance for who knows how long?

At least two of the No Excuses Power Tools came in handy for fomenting the change:

  • First, define your own terms and set the agenda. That’s what Burk did when she explained to the world, over and over, that this was about access to power and the power of access, not about golf.
  • Second, create a movement. Don’t be the lone voice; organize like-minded people to join with you, as Burk did in mobilizing the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Then, just like with civil rights lunch counter sit-ins 50 years ago and same sex marriage initiatives today, people all around gradually begin to see the injustice.

And when the weight of changing culture and public opinion reached its apex with the specter of Rometty being shut out, it became inevitable that the club wouldn’t just change its policy but would even feel like heroes for finally doing what is right.

We might as well praise them, as Boardroom Golf Institute’s Cavanaugh did when I asked for her reaction: “This concession is no longer a missed opportunity for men and women to contribute to each others game of play in business networking or in the success they desire for business and life.”

The remaining business will be to make sure Rice and Moore are not mere tokens. And to urge these two women who were admitted to the club to work inside of it to bring in more.

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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