More golf won’t bridge the office gender gap

Workplace diversity & equality updates

In business, as in life, those who cannot golf may miss out. In life there are upsides, in that we also miss out on the chance to spend the day with people who are really keen on golf. We forgo having to play golf, and we sacrifice any excuse for wearing Argyle sweaters. In the world of work, however, these significant upsides can be outweighed by the downsides of lost career opportunities.

So, the kind thing would be to applaud the good intent of EY, the professional services firm, which is apparently offering golf lessons to some of its female consultants so they no longer miss out on networking and chances to schmooze the boss.

The move followed reports noting the disadvantage felt by women denied the career benefits that result from socialising around certain exclusive sports, notably golf but also skiing. Favouritism can exist for reasons other than ability, and the clubbiness that sustains it is often heavily weighted towards men.

But for all the good intent, this is actually a real bogey of an initiative. Seeing an area where it can do better on inclusivity, EY has opted for mitigation rather than solution. No doubt the women taking advantage of the offer will benefit. But this is tackling the symptoms of a problem, rather than the cause. It is a bit like the owners of the Titanic offering passengers swimming lessons instead of teaching the crew iceberg evasion.

I’m no management consultant but if I were, I think it is just possible I would analyse the real problem as being a little broader than failure at swinging a stick. Perhaps the issue is not that women are not playing golf but that what happens on the golf course and during other types of socialising holds a disproportionate sway over career advancement. If we were still in the realms of entertaining clients at pole-dancing venues, would the firm be offering lessons for women in appreciating strip clubs?

In fairness to EY, it can only be accountable for the culture inside its organisation. If potential clients wish to cement business relationships on the golf course it has to, ahem, play ball. Even so, its golf lessons idea does not really suggest a business with a new respect for inclusivity.

If sporting prowess is so essential then obviously these firms need to rethink their training programme. If those without sporting skills are missing out on career opportunities, then it is not just women who may be suffering. There are plenty of men who have no talent for sport, and I speak from experience here. Clearly, it’s no use hiring a load of brilliant consultants who can save a client’s business if none of them can handle a black slope or play out of the rough.

Patently, this needs to be added to any degree leading towards a career in management consulting. What use are traditional courses when it is obvious that what you actually need are degrees in Economics, Management and Putting or Statistics and Downhill Slalom?

For those seeking more advanced education, there might be a Masters in Après-Ski, Mulled Wine and Fondue or an MBA in Sand Wedges. We are sending our graduates naked into the meeting room. How many campuses even have a dry ski slope? All that money on new facilities, yet how many Oxford colleges have a decent driving range?

It should be added that what needs to be taught is not so much golf as corporate golf. Lessons need to include detailed sessions on: how to manage upwards on the links; when it is OK to beat your boss; and how not to yell “In your face” to recently vanquished prospective clients. There will need to be lessons on telling off-colour jokes and ending rants with “It’s political correctness gone mad.”

No doubt the consulting titans are on it. But just maybe the actual problem is that important decisions on promotion and appointments are based too heavily on “blokeish” considerations like affability on the golf course. No doubt affability is important, not least in relationship management. But ultimately a client paying top dollar for the advice of these firms ought to make that decision on something more than a consultant’s swing or readiness to stand a round.

It is probably naive to hope such well-established approaches may change any time soon. But a decent consultant might start by advising their client not to waste money doling out lucrative consultancy contracts or promotions on the basis of clubbiness or golfing skills. And a decent consultant might seek better metrics on which to base advancement.

So perhaps if these firms really want to tackle the underlying problem (rather than just seeking to look like they care) they might look at their general approach. Just a thought, of course, but it’s where I’d start. No ifs or putts.

Robert is appearing on a panel on Boris Johnson at the FT Weekend Festival on Saturday September 7;

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at

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