WASHINGTON, April 7 (UPI) -- Women's advocate Martha Burk on Thursday said she has requested proof from the three sponsors of this year's Masters Golf Tournament, held at the exclusively male Augusta National Golf Club, that the companies do not discriminate against female employees.
"The reason we want this information is because (the sponsors) claim that are not discriminating against women and it is up to them to show that," Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, told reporters in a telephone news conference on Thursday, the first day of this year's Masters tournament.
Letters were sent Thursday to the chief executives of the three companies -- Samuel Palmisano of IBM in New York, Ed Whitacre Jr. of Texas-based SBC Communications, and Lee Raymond of Exxon Mobil, also in Texas -- asking for employment data on hiring, pay, and promotion of women in their companies.
Burk has clashed with tournament organizers in the past for holding the golf championship at the Augusta, Ga. course. In summer 2002, Burk sent a letter to on: "Our membership alone decides our membership--not any outside group with its own agenda." Burk attempted to picket the tournament two years ago but was blocked from the area.
"These sponsors are making a very public statement that is contradicting their own company policies, and is not in the best interest of their shareholders, their customers and certainly not their workers," Burk said.
Burk pointed out that in 1990, corporate sponsors including IBM fled the Masters when it was revealed that the tournament was to be played at Shoal Creek in Alabama, a course which did not admit blacks.
"Now that it is gender discrimination, IBM has either reversed its policy or is making a public statement that gender discrimination is nothing serious," said Burk, who stressed that such exclusion is "far from benign" and "shuts women out of their careers."
Company representatives from SBC and Exxon did not comment directly on the letter, but defended their companies' records as well as Augusta's right to run itself. IBM did not return calls.
"It's important to note that Exxon is sponsoring the Masters tournament, the world's most prestigious golf tournament, not the policies of the Augusta golf club," Exxon spokesman Tom Cirigliano told UPI, adding that the club's policies should be determined by Augusta, not by Exxon.
"We prohibit discrimination of any kind anywhere in the world," he also said.
"Anyone who knows SBC knows that we have a great track record and have received numerous awards for diversity at all levels," SBC Communications spokesman Larry Solomon told UPI. "Today, women make up 48 percent of our workforce."
Burk also noted that a class action lawsuit was filed Thursday against Smith Barney, an arm of financial giant Citigroup, a past sponsor of the Masters. The suit alleges nationwide sex discrimination at the retail brokerage firm. The federal lawsuit was brought by four women plaintiffs who said Smith Barney discriminates against women with respect to account distribution and compensation, Burk said.
Burk and Washington, D.C.-based attorney Cyrus Mehri, of Mehri & Skalet PLLC, launched the Women on Wall Street Project last year to investigate gender discrimination at corporate sponsors of the Masters tournament.
Burk and Mehri said they would continue to focus on discrimination at companies in the financial sector, but did not rule out future lawsuits against companies sponsoring the Masters.
The letters to the three corporate sponsors also condemned the practice of deducting expenses for discriminatory clubs on corporate tax returns.
"Augusta members maintain the fiction that the club is all personal, yet they treat its costs as business expenses ... Fortunately, many in Congress object to the practice of forcing taxpayers to underwrite discrimination through granting of tax deductions for these expenses. Yesterday legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to ban such misuse of taxpayer money." The bill was introduced by Representatives Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Brad Sherman, D-Calif.
"When the CEOs of companies belong to clubs that exclude women and at the clubs it's a real platform for business opportunities, they're sending a message to their managers down through the ranks," said Mehri.