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Masters of discrimination

March 30, 2006

THE GEORGIA DOGWOODS ARE dripping with dew. The azaleas are exploding with color. The staff is trimming impeccable greens and fairways and making pimento cheese sandwiches. The Masters is coming. All of which begs the question: Does IBM Corp. really consider it OK to discriminate against women but not against blacks? We called the company, which advertises its ability to help customers answer any inquiry, but a spokesman politely declined to answer.

The question arises from the company's sponsorship of the 70th Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club, which starts April 6. In 1990, IBM -- lauded as a diversity leader for more than 50 years -- famously pulled its advertising from the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, a private club in Alabama that did not admit blacks, on the grounds that "supporting even indirectly activities which are exclusionary is against IBM's practices and policies."

So why is the company now comfortable promoting a tournament at a club that notoriously excludes women? So notoriously, in fact, that the club's chairman, Hootie Johnson, decided that the tournament should spare any company the embarrassment of sponsoring it for two years. IBM, along with AT&T Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp., now deem it safe to wade back into the business of supporting a venerable institution that discriminates against women. And "Big Blue" likes to think it is innovative?

It's wrong for A-list business leaders to lend their support to an institution that excludes women. It's discouraging to realize that, several years after Martha Burk first took on Augusta National's policies, almost nothing has changed. Burk, you may recall, launched a campaign against Augusta National in 2002, protesting that excluding women from its membership perpetuated a corporate culture that denies women access to the informal, high-level meetings where real business takes place (in other words: the Old Boy Network.) She had a point. A lot of deals and networking take place on golf courses, especially at venerable clubs such as Augusta National, whose roster is a Who's Who of corporate America. (Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and outgoing Citibank Chairman Sanford "Sandy" Weill are all reportedly members.)

A private club can admit or exclude whomever it wants. But what IBM, AT&T and Exxon Mobil (not to mention CBS, which has broadcast the Masters for more than 50 years) are doing -- essentially forcing their employees and shareholders to support discrimination -- is another matter. All three claim to have robust policies encouraging full participation of women and minorities in business activities.

They should all amend these policies if they continue sponsoring the Masters. And IBM's management needs to explain to its employees and shareholders why the company doesn't consider gender discrimination as big a deal as racial discrimination.

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