Opinion: The problem with executives who golf

Women trying to climb the corporate career ladder are up against a “grass ceiling,” according to a study by researchers at Miami University and the University of Cincinnati to be published in the Journal of Management next year. The study found that CEOs who play golf are less likely to have women on their executive teams. What’s more, when the CEO golfs, there’s a higher pay gap between men and women on management teams.

Kara Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo

This makes sense. As the study points out, 77% of golfers in the US are men. And a different report found that more than 70% of Fortune 1000 CEOs say they’ve done business with a person they met on a golf course. If chief executives get to know men through rounds of golf, it’s easy to see how those men will be top of mind when it’s time to promote someone — and how women who aren’t on the greens will be left behind.

But this kind of culture isn’t just awful for women. It’s also bad for business overall.

Deborah Gray, a marketing professor at Central Michigan University, recently told CBS that businesses should offer employees golf lessons so they don’t miss out on the networking that happens on the links, and that the lessons should be held during business hours to help ensure women don’t miss out.

That’s a terrible idea. Golf is an especially time-consuming hobby — it can take four to five hours to play a round of golf. But many working moms like me would struggle to find four to five minutes of free time in a typical day. Women have less time for leisure because we do the majority of the child care and domestic labor in our homes. So we certainly don’t have time to take up golf — and shouldn’t have to in order to get ahead in our careers.

Even if golf lessons happened on company time, I imagine that the games themselves would probably happen on weekends, when many women have caregiving responsibilities. What’s more, any lessons or games women do during the workday would likely leave them behind on the actual work they need to do, which might mean they need to put in more work time on nights and weekends — which is, again, incompatible with caregiving.

So leaders who network on the golf course — even if they add more women to their list of golfing buddies — are always going to end up with less diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces because they’re not going to get to know the women and other people who don’t have the leisure time — not to mention money — to participate in an elite sport in order to network with the boss.

That’s why former Goldman Sachs executive Laura Liswood — who conducted training for political appointees in President Barack Obama’s administration, including me — warns that leaders need to consciously ensure they give equal time to everyone on their teams. “…[B]e conscious of the fact that spending hours outside of the office with certain people means you will naturally get to know them well — while not getting to know the other members of your team,” she wrote in “The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work.” “To keep the playing field level, the skilled manager needs to find ways to learn about the other members of the team so that an equal level of comfort and knowledge exists with the people who aren’t naturally like you.” That way, everyone’s skills and accomplishments can be considered when deciding who gets a raise or a promotion.

Of course, the kind of exclusive relationship-building that happens on the golf course isn’t just bad for women. It’s also a terrible business decision. Research shows that businesses are more successful when they have greater gender and other diversity. After all, people who are alike — like people who enjoy the same sport — tend to think alike. You get a wider range of ideas from diverse teams.

Exclusive networking among those who have the immense privilege of leisure time is only going to hold women and businesses back. But putting an end to favoritism among people who meet on the green could help both women and businesses see more green — in the form of higher paychecks and profits.

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