This week Alex Salmond and Maria Miller, among others, have announced that they will boycott golf’s Open Championship because of Muirfield’s continued men-only membership policy. Despite the fact that occupational segregation is currently a ministerial gender equality priority in Scotland its golf clubs lag behind in the equality stakes. Muirfield is not the only men-only club to hold the Open but it has become a lightening rod for the debate about sexism in sport. There has been condemnation from within the sport as well as outside it amid concerns for the potential damage golf’s image. Laura Davies, among the most successful British female golfer in recent years has said it’s time Muirfield joined the 21st century.
Many have called for an amendment to the Equalities law to force Muirfield and the others like it to admit women. However, I don’t believe this would be entirely helpful. Muirfield – and its female only counterparts – should continue but not in the professional game. I’m not calling for a boycott of the open or the club by people generally, though that would be a welcome help. The only thing that will truly show there is no longer room for this kind of sexism in professional golf is if the R&A drops them from the list of courses able to hold the open.
They should not be able to host professional competitions of any kind. Then, if they truly want to be a single sex institution for moral or personal reasons they may continue to do so. It is often true however that these institutions are more quick to adapt if they’re facing a hit to the pocket book rather than a moral question.
Peter Dawson, head of the R&A, was asked the difference between a whites only golf club and a men only golf club.
“There’s a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly. To compare that with a men’s golf club is frankly absurd. There’s no comparison whatsoever.
It is important to consider why Mr Dawson considers it unthinkable to discriminate on the grounds of skin colour or Judaism but is blasé when it comes to sexism.
Legally, Mr Dawson is correct; the Equalities Act 2010 prevents discrimination in private members associations on the basis of skin colour but not on the basis of gender.
People have also perhaps been too quick to create false equivalencies for very different struggles. This often leads to lumping class, gender, race and sexuality into one overarching struggle for civil rights and equality. In actual fact the history and even current experiences of each individual struggle has been quite different to say nothing of intersectionality – which covers the experiences of people who fall into more than one group that is discriminated against.
However in the UK, and the west more generally, there is a persistent strain of thought that believes sexism is over. That sexism and misogyny, when it does occur, is the exception rather than the norm. This leads to the view that any woman complaining about sexism must be, more often than not, doing it for attention or because she hates men or because she wants an unfair advantage. Mr Dawson, consciously or not, is buying into this idea when he dismisses the suffering of women as somehow less than that of people discriminated against for the colour of their skin or their religion. The idea that excluding women on the grounds of their gender isn’t truly discrimination – not the same way excluding black people or Jews is – is one of the elements that allows for the perpetuation of institutionalised sexism. It also reinforces the idea that women’s sport is inherently less worthy than men’s.
Debates about sexism in sport are springing up across the board – from cycling to the Olympics – but continuing to ban women from clubs won’t make gender equality, women in sports or the 21st century go away. Instead those clubs will be left to crumble into history like the dinosaurs they are.