The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Augusta National Golf Club has admitted two women as members: financier Darla Moore and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
I don’t know much about golf, but I do know that Augusta National is hallowed ground in the minds of most golfers. As an employment lawyer, I also know about the history of discrimination at the course.
What I didn’t know is that Augusta National has roughly 300 members or that women have been allowed to play the course as guests for many years. In fact, there are only four days a year where “members only” events are conducted and women are (were) completely excluded. I’ve also learned that you cannot “apply” for membership at Augusta, you are nominated and approved for membership by a board.
So, how did Augusta get away with keeping women out for so long? It is a private golf club. Yes, that matters. You see, the decision to allow women at Augusta national doesn’t have a lot to do with employment law, but it does have to do with a common misconception folks have about Title VII and the other anti-discrimination laws. People think that these laws prohibit discrimination anywhere – restaurants, parks, and private clubs.
Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending on your point of view) a purely private organization can still decide who can be a member. So, just as the neo-nazi’s can restrict membership against Jews, Augusta National can restrict membership to all men and the anti-discrimination laws we enforce as employers have no effect.
What prompted the change you may ask? A change of heart, perhaps? Nope. Most commentators believe it was pressure from corporate sponsors. Many of America’s largest corporations are very sensitive to diversity and some are headed by women. In fact, it is likely that IBM CEO Ginni Rometty was impetus for change. IBM is a major sponsor of the Masters golf tournament which is held each year at Augusta National and its CEO is traditionally offered membership to the club.
Yet, the club did not announce membership to Rometty in the spring during the tournament. Instead, it waited to the end of summer after the smoke cleared to pick two other high profile women to bring in as members in a likely effort to avoid being viewed to cow to pressure.
Regardless of the cause, I am glad to see the change. Employment laws can go only so far to stamp out discrimination. People have to do the rest.