It’s going to be very interesting to see if Augusta National chairman Billy Payne holds out a green jacket and says, “You look like a 32 long to me, Ginni.” By tradition, Augusta extends a place in its all-male membership to the chief executive of IBM. But it so happens that the company’s new CEO wears pearls. Her name is Virginia Rometty, and she is the first woman ever to hold the position. What is the club to do? Deny her a blazer simply because it has to be taken in at the waist?
As the Masters tournament week approaches, Augusta once again finds itself under intense public scrutiny over its men-only policy. In its 80-year existence it has never admitted a female. Yet the previous eight CEOs of IBM, a longtime sponsor of the tournament, reportedly have all worn the club jacket. Withholding one from Rometty would represent a significant bias-cut.
Any discussion of Augusta’s all-male policy has to start with the fact that it’s a private club and has the right to do what it pleases. The trouble with the attack on the club nine years ago by Martha Burk was that she tried to publicly extort it into accepting a woman. That Rometty might be denied membership, and have to spend her vacations snorkeling in Anguilla instead of playing golf, is not an offense worth being bothered by, compared to the offensiveness of blackmailed social engineering. You want to tell Augusta whom it must accept as a member? Be prepared to tell the same thing to the YWCA, PFLAG, the sisters of Chi Omega, and African American fraternities — and to seize and review their membership lists.
The argument in favor of Augusta inviting a female can’t rest on enforcing some lame idea of sameness for the good of all. Burk was unsuccessful in 2002 because her argument smacked of appointing herself the People’s Deputy for Monitoring the Fruits of the Revolution. I won’t forget the sight of her civil liberties lawyer trying to have a drag queen banned from the public protest outside of the club. Or her contention that a bullhorn wasn’t a loud enough instrument for protest at a golf tournament. Or her character assassination of former chairman Hootie Johnson, despite his record as a civil rights advocate. In the end, Johnson’s refusal to abandon the club’s privacy rights “at the point of a bayonet” seemed more right because the tenor of Burk’s argument was simply intolerable.
The argument has to be made on different grounds. It’s not good enough to say, “Augusta must admit a woman because it’s good for society” or “because it’s time.”
If there is a valid philosophical argument that will persuade Augusta to make Rometty a member it’s this: CEOs don’t really qualify as men or women. They’re a cold-water species of achievers, entrepreneurs and restless ladder climbers. Rometty earned her way into a winner’s circle that is genderless. Her defining characteristic is not that she’s a woman, but that she has a talent for corporate victory.
Why does the CEO of IBM always get a green jacket? It’s an interesting question. Apparently because IBM chiefs fit the profile of dignified yet aggressive accomplishment that Augusta likes to cultivate for the main body of its reported 300-odd member list, which is said to include Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., Pete Petersen, Kenneth Chenault, Sanford Weill, George Schultz, as well as execs from Coca-Cola, General Electric, Rockwell, Bechtel and so on.
Inherited money doesn’t get you into Augusta, nor does status or reputation alone. The best way to become a member is to shark your way to the top of a large American company.
Rometty has done that. She presided over a strategy that has lifted IBM shares to the highest levels in company history. She was apparently instrumental in pushing the company into cloud technology. When she was promoted in January, her predecessor Sam Palmisano said, “Ginni got it because she deserved it . . . It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies.”
If Rometty is invited to become an Augusta member, it won’t be because “it’s time” for a woman. It’s more likely to be because the members want to know what she thinks. And according to a profile by Bloomberg Business Week, she is a “serious, no-nonsense thinker.”
But whether or not Rometty wears a green jacket, Title IX will survive. Women aren’t genuinely excluded at Augusta: They play golf there, and they have lunch there. They simply aren’t invited to pay the thousands of dollars in membership fees, and it’s silly to call that a profound hardship or social ill. What’s more, the club could quite justifiably deny Rometty an invitation for a reason other than gender. It clings tenaciously to privacy, and Rometty may have simply garnered too much attention. It may be reluctant to be seen as bending to outside opinion.
The word at the club has long been that it will admit a woman eventually — but that it will not be a news event. One day there will simply be a female member, and it will be up to us to notice. If Rometty does slip on a blazer, it will be quietly, for the simple reason that, in business, she plays from the tips.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.