The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
It never ceases to amaze me that in 2012 we can still claim a “first” for women but that’s exactly what happened earlier this week when the Augusta National Golf Club suddenly changed their decades-old policy of prohibiting women to join. The lucky first female members to receive an invitation include former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore. Noticeably absent from that list is Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, which sponsor the U.S. Masters.
The image of golf remains inextricably linked to business, often carrying the connotation of a “boy’s club” and I doubt lifting the restriction on female membership at Augusta National will make a dent in that perception. While some applaud the move as progress, others, like me, argue that the gesture arrived offering too little, too late.
“Private clubs, particularly ones like August National, which hosts large prestigious events like the Masters are where business deals are often conducted. Exclusion of women send the message that they are second class and not worthy,” argued Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. She feels that the admission of these two women, whose accomplishments eclipse most of the existing male members, does not go far enough. “This tokenism won’t change the culture that dismisses women as equal participants in the business world,” suggested Ms. Koblert, who believes real progress will be defined when Augusta National has equal numbers of male and female members.
The role sport plays in women’s advancement in business can be a contentious issue and the research on it remains scarce. A 2002 study by Oppenheimer, a mutual fund company, found that 81 percent of female executives in the U.S. played organized sports after elementary school. The same study showed that while one is six women described themselves as athletic that number jumps to almost half of women who earn over $75,000 a year.
A 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, currently an economist at Princeton, showed that an increased participation in sports among girls resulted in higher college attendance and employment levels. It also led to greater participation in previously male-dominated occupations.
Data aside, many hold the belief, especially in certain industries, that playing or even knowing more about sports spells additional career opportunities.
“Industries like private equity and law are male-dominated industries. Success in those industries is relationship driven. In order to develop relationships and network, people need to have things in common,” said Samantha Horn, a partner at Stikeman Elliot LP in Toronto, adding, “One area where this commonality often occurs is playing or discussing sports.”
Ms. Horn hosts an annual golf and networking event, spurred by feedback from many women who realize its an important tool but found it intimidating.
“It’s a great equalizer in a conversation – most people like to talk sports and it is less controversial than politics,” she observed.
Several companies specifically target this market of professional women looking to advance themselves through sports such as Toronto-based Corporate Caddy Consulting, which teaches women to improve their golf game and learn how to network on the green.
Lindsay Knowlton, the company’s co-founder, grew up playing competitive golf before entering the corporate world, where she often found herself to be the only woman at golf events. This impacts women’s advancement since golf provides a unique opportunity to spend quality time with clients and co-workers.
“Where else do you get to spend 4 hours alone with a client?” asked Ms. Knowlton.
Lally Rementilla also sees an opportunity to advance women through sports education and co-founded the Gal’s Got Game website and newsletter, which seeks to demystify the sports section. A better knowledge of sports creates a more level playing field at work, which helps women advance their careers, explained Ms. Rementilla.
“In a lot of workplaces, sports talk is prevalent, especially in highly-charged environments. Being up to date on sports is a great conversation starter,” she said. Does this mean women must learn to talk like one of the guys to gain acceptance? Ms. Rementilla disagrees.
“We see this as learning to talk ‘with the guys’ as opposed to being ‘one of the guys’… The Gal’s Got Game is not about making women more masculine or being something they are not,” explained Ms. Rementilla. “We are about creating new platforms for interaction and adding another common denominator in the work place,” she added.