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WomanOf the Month 7-05: Martha Burk

Her dive into one of the most bitter gender discrimination controversies involving corporate America was nearly accidental. In April 2002 Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, saw a column by Christine Brennan in USA Today railing against Augusta National Golf Club’s exclusion of women from its membership. With the support of her council’s steering committee (the council represents nearly 10 million US women and over 200 women’s organizations), she sent a letter urging Augusta to admit women. Then the firestorm began. In her new book, Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in America and What Can Be Done About It, Burk details the tumultuous events that ensued: among them, the retreat of some sponsors from the Masters tournament; others’ retrenchment; Augusta’s and most of its members’ defiance of requests that it admit women members; and a rekindled debate about corporate gender discrimination stoked by revelation of the members’ names, which Burk lists in an appendix. More than just delivering an enticing insider’s view of the Augusta National battle, however, Burk sets forth an agenda for addressing sex discrimination in corporate America through positive momentum laws, gender equity audits, improved child care, and the like. In an interview with WomenOf.com, she reflects on where Augusta has taken us and new efforts to end gender discrimination.

WomenOf.com : It was such a big story when the debate about Augusta National not admitting women hit.

Burk : Yes, I was looking back just the other day and I found more than 60 stories about it just in The New York Times. The editor there viewed it not as a sports story. He viewed it as a story of social justice and a story of the sociology of gender relations.

WomenOf.com: One of the points you made in your book was the research your groups have done to find that many of these lists of “best companies for working mothersapostrophe, such as the Working Mother magazine’s list, or awards for cultivating women leaders given to corporations by women’s organization Catalyst, for example, are “based on very loose criteria or are an outright quid quo pro for advertising dollars.apostrophe We’ve all been taken in by that in the media I think; you referred to it as a cheap date for these corporations, some of whom were actually involved in sex discrimination lawsuits at the time they are being honored.

Burk: We had always known that there’s a monetary relationship in those lists of which companies are best for women and for diversity. But we never realized the degree to which it’s a straight up quid pro quo or to which dishonesty pervades the entire process. It’s much cheaper for a company than fixing the pay gap or the promotion problem that they all have. They have even been using these lists as sort of a silver bullet—they are saying, well, we couldn’t possibly be discriminating because we got this award or we made this list.

WomenOf.com: So where do things stand with the sponsors for the Master’s tournament at Augusta after this 2005 event?

Burk: Sponsors Coca Cola and GM and Citigroup pulled out for 2003 and 2004 and this year, of course. IBM never left. This year Exxon Mobil and SBC, both of whom have members of Augusta National, came. GM was never an on-the-air sponsor. It was the official car sponsor originally. But the women inside the GM hierarchy argued very strenuously against sponsorship and the company listened.

WomenOf.com: What do you think has been the legacy to this point of the Augusta debate?

Burk: I think it raised consciousness in a way nothing else could have. But I don’t want this to be a gender battle of the century. There were a lot of men who were with us. It opened a lot of eyes to the extent to which corporate America minimizes sex discrimination. When I asked people to put a different word upon it—race—and asked them would they dare to exclude, the answer was of course they would not. Many women were shocked, surprised and hurt when they learned this is what their company really thought of them. And it’s not specific to these companies; it’s an attitude that spills over into all kinds of corporate interactions. And they are validated by these attitudes. The appendix of this book is astounding in the list of the number of corporations and institutions in which these members interact—it’s over 1,300.

WomenOf.com: What else has come out of the effort?

Burk: We (the Council) started the Women on Wall Street Project a year ago, concentrating on the financial sector because we heard from so many women in those companies and those CEOs are all in it together so to speak. A group filed a class action lawsuit against the Smith Barney division of Citigroup the week of the tournament. We’re looking for patterns of sex discrimination. We take in all the info, see if they have a case, and a plaintiff’s firm handles it. What we’d like is to come up with criteria so we don’t have a financial stake in this: for example, the percentage of women-owned businesses in the supply chain; efforts to encourage women to apply for non-traditional jobs, etc. Companies could use this internally and do the measuring and report what is actually going on. The leadership should be accountable for holding the rank and file accountable—pay and promotion is a family issue. It’s not about us against them. It would be easier on the men in those families too. The family would be better off all together.

Additionally, I just returned from getting a shareholder resolution on sex discrimination from a WalMart annual meeting. They are involved in a class action lawsuit on sex discrimination although they are not involved in Augusta . We want to take this model of shareholder resolution and disclosure of pay and promotion data, for example, to some of these companies, and our targets would be ones making these very public statements through these memberships at Augusta .

Examples of companies who are strong in these aspects of disclosure of pay, gender, race and job category are Ben & Jerry’s and Ernst & Young, which is about 50% women. The latter encourages men to take advantage of child care and leave so that women who also take advantage of it are not seen as lesser employees or less dedicated.

Without the Augusta controversy, we never would have had the momentum to pursue some of these initiatives or have uncovered the pervasiveness of the problem.

WomenOf.com: What do you think a key issue is for women right now?

Burk: Many people don’t realize it but the minimum wage is largely a women’s issue. Most people on the minimum wage are adult women, and when we fail to raise it in eight or nine years, as we have now, it primarily is adult women who are affected.

WomenOf.com: What would be your advice for women fighting these battles on the job?

Burk: Most companies have policies on paper—ask them to prove it by releasing those papers on pay and promotion. If they are unwilling, ask them to commit to internally reviewing them and giving them to their compensation committee.

Also, don’t try to go it alone. There is strength and safety in numbers. Otherwise, you’ll be seen as a troublemaker.

And last, as you move up the ladder, bring another woman along. Men have always done it. Women need to help each other the way men do.