Building Business Relationships: Women, Power, and Golf

iStock_000013865591XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Earlier this month the Masters reminded us of the not-so-subtle bias that women continue to face in the corporate space. Even when they have reached the highest echelons of business, women still contend with outright barriers to networks of power.

And make no mistake, golf and business go hand in hand. Golf has long been the game of business people. It has social cache, while at the same time, it’s not too physically demanding. It’s good for building the rapport, conversation, and friendly competition at the core of strong business relationships.

But, the majority of women avoid the game, and, according to Leslie Andrews and Adrienne Wax, the authors of the newly published book Even Par: How Golf Helps Women Gain the Upper Hand in Business, they’re missing out on the opportunity to build strong relationships that can help advance their careers. “Golf is a great way to build relationships with clients, prospective clients, people within your company. If you can talk about golf, all of the sudden, you have a reason to talk to the CEO or your boss two levels above you,” Wax explained.

She added, “It’s not only our point of view, but statistics support the fact that golf has significant advantages to businesswomen.” She pointed to a survey by Mass Mutual of 1,000 woman who played golf. “Seventy-three percent agreed that playing golf helped them build relationships and network for business,” she said.

Golf can be a tool for advancement, but given its historical and sometimes current practice of outright discrimination, should women bother? Does learning to play golf to help your career mean assimilating to a boys’ club culture of business, or is it about taking control, using every tool at your disposal to get ahead? It’s a tricky topic.

One thing’s for sure – considering the rising clout of women in the corporate space, maybe golf needs women more than women need golf. “I can’t think of a man in business who wouldn’t want to network with Virginia Rometty,” Wax remarked.

The Power of Relationships

Ask any of the women who’ve shared their advice with The Glass Hammer over the years:  excelling in business is all about developing strong relationships. We’ve heard time and time again, that this is something women are good at – listening, connecting, building networks. What we’re not great at doing, apparently, is transforming those personal networks into something more lucrative.

A recent Economist study revealed that board members with large networks make more money – but only if they’re men. Women with equally large networks still make less. A lot less, in fact – even less than men with small networks.

The Economist suggests that this is the fault of women, and perhaps many women do feel uncomfortable leveraging relationships the way men successfully do in the business arena.

But there are obviously larger cultural and institutional issues at stake here as well – women aren’t perceived as being as valuable or as credible as men, and they get paid less despite their level of experience. (Consider Catalyst’s recent confirmation of what many women have experienced – that men are paid for potential, while women are paid for proven performance.)

These social beliefs can be discouraging and frustrating. Women feel they must be as good or better to compete with men, and often, they are. Even so, they still make less and receive less respect, seemingly no matter what.

That’s why notions like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave” messages have become so popular. They imply that women can smash the glass ceiling, dismantle outmoded gendered institutions of power, and change the way we do business forever if only we try. These messages make us feel powerful. They encourage us to believe that nothing can stand in our way.

Yet, we know that’s not exactly true.

It’s been decades since women entered the workforce in large numbers, and women still only comprise a small fraction of corporate leadership in our biggest companies. It’s not because professional women haven’t “leaned in” far enough, or that so many are simply choosing to leave. In a 2004 Catalyst study, 46% of women surveyed named “exclusion from informal networks” as the main factor holding them back in their career.

Networks of power are tricky, and they are built on informal relationships, appearances, and all of the biases that go along with them. Nothing made that more clear than this month’s kerfuffle over whether IBM CEO Virginia Rometty should be granted admission to the Augusta National Golf Club.

In the past, Augusta has admitted the CEOs of the Masters Tournament’s corporate sponsors to its rarefied all-male membership. But this year, IBM threw a wrench in the works by promoting a women to CEO, drawing attention to the Club’s Depression-era membership qualifications.

It also drew attention to the fact that women are underrepresented in business and on the golf course, that informal relationships are at the core of how business gets done.

Women and Golf

Andrews, co-author of Even Par, is a Class A member of the LPGA who also spent 15 years in the corporate space. Today she leads corporate events that are geared toward helping women learn to use golf for business and offers private lessons. “The women I work with are making seven figures, and they have no qualms about their qualifications or performance in the boardroom. But for some reason they struggle with the transition to the golf course,” she said.

“A lot of it comes down to the fear of embarrassment. Women think they have to be really good in order to play golf with other people,” she said. On the other hand, she continued, most of the men who spend an afternoon golfing with colleagues really aren’t that great. They know how to hit the ball and the general rules, but they’re not pros.

Wax explained, “Golf is a tough sport to excel at. But you don’t need to excel. You just need to get good enough.”

“I think there’s an unfortunate corollary notion to the workplace,” Andrews said. “It’s the same cliché, and it’s sad that we’re still talking about this in 2012. But there’s this feeling that women have, that they have to be better than, instead of good enough. Women feel that they have to be perfect before taking a risk and exposing themselves.”

She added, “Somehow we’re hanging back, we feel we don’t belong at the table, let alone at the head of the table.”

And in many cases, there’s good reason for this – consider research by Northwestern University’s Alice Eagly revealing that we judge women in leadership more harshly than men. Why set yourself up to be picked apart or pushed off the glass cliff?

Nevertheless, Andrews and Wax say, on the golf course at least, these fears are unnecessary.

“We’re not suggesting that women need to act like men, or that you need to infiltrate the boys’ club. The boys’ club needs to change. But business is always going to be conducted outside the office,” Wax said. “Informal relationships will continue to be there, and women need to be where they are.”

“Golf is a tool,” Andrews said, “And you need to have all the tools you can to help you succeed in business.”

Wax added, “And besides the business benefits, it’s actually a fun game you can play for the rest of your life. It’s one of the only sports where people of different abilities can play and have fun. It sort of levels the playing field, but you have to get on the course first.”

She mentioned that the PGA is making an effort to change as well, working to get more women and young people interested in the game.

Andrews continued, “Back in the Mad Men days, the notion of golf as a business tool became common, and since it was men in business, it was men on the golf course. Now, with women in positions of power, they, too, need the ability to take advantage of the benefits of being on the golf course.”

Which brings us to another question: why would any smart business men want to be a member of a club that is hell-bent on excluding powerful women from its network simply because they are female?

With or without the boys’ club, women are slowly gaining power in the corporate space. Strengthening relationships, whether on or off the course, can only contribute to that. If women want to use golf as a tool to do so, then they should do just that, particularly with the reassurance that it’s more about getting onto the course than being the best at the game.

And it would be foolish for clubs (as well as other informal networks) to keep them out. But we should acknowledge that there are perfectly valid reasons that women may not want to play.

In fact, it was never clear that Rometty (who does play golf) really wanted to be a member of Augusta in the first place, and she never commented on the situation. But perhaps the image of Rometty at the Masters in a bright pink blazer, rather than a green one, speaks for itself.