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on the radar: Martha Burk on Sex Discrimination


OK, Warren, Take Your Own Advice

These days you don't have to try very hard to find material for a column on sex discrimination. From "Friday Night Lights," the hit TV series that could more properly be called "Friday Night Stereotypes," to former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's new book on her career, and Warren Buffett's latest ethics advice, we are served up a wealth of opportunity.

Come to think of it, all of the above are connected. Let me explain. "Friday Night Lights" is about high school football in a small Texas town, much like the one I attended way back in 1956. Football was king then, the girls weren't allowed to even play sports. Their role was adoring cheerleader. Fast forward to 2006, and nothing has changed on the small screen. All the boys are good looking, all the girls are ornamental adoring sexy types. Winning is what it's about, and loyalty to "the team" is the most critical element in life. Your buddies depend on it, the coach depends on it, and even the future of the town depends on it. Stick together, exclude the unworthy, and you will always come out on top.

So what does this have to do with corporate America, where Fiorina and Buffett hang out? It's just a different level of the same mentality, all the way to "the girls" being unworthy and unwelcome non-players except when cheerleading the boys or providing diversions of a sexual nature. Fiorina reveals that when she started as a young exec at AT&T, she had to go along with business meetings at strip clubs. Just like small town football, it was all about the boys. As she climbed the corporate ladder, she was routinely called a bimbo or a bitch, but rarely treated as an equal, even by male subordinates. If she fired someone, she was "vindictive," while the guys were "decisive" if they cut somebody from the team. All in the past? Not so fast. Morgan Stanley settled a multi-million dollar sex discrimination lawsuit last year, brought on because male executives routinely entertained clients at strip clubs and all-male golf outings, making the playing field decidedly uneven for females in the company.

Enter Warren Buffett, publicly warning his top executives this week not to be lemmings. He says many corporate scandals (and no doubt lawsuits like the one above) arise because activity that is wrong is accepted as normal behavior. According to Buffett, if well respected managers engage in questionable practices, the thinking is "it must be OK to do it," and that's wrong too. He urges his managers to take leadership and not go along. Trouble is, he doesn't really mean it. Buffett needs to take his own advice. Four years ago, USA Today revealed that the previously secret list of Augusta National Golf Club members is populated with many of the nation's top executives, including Buffett, and the heads of the aforementioned AT&T and Morgan Stanley. The club proudly discriminates against women. Even though the exclusion became a national argument that played out on the front pages, Buffett and his buddies never spoke out, and certainly didn't desert "team Augusta" for something so trivial as the fairness principle. So what if women executives are left out of client entertainment at the world's most prestigious golf club, and we hire a few prostitutes during Masters Tournament week?

An attitude of sex discrimination from top management is one place where the trickle down theory works. Women at lower levels of all of these companies and many others continue to report that front line managers get the message. Females are lesser, and a little sex discrimination in pay or promotion, on even a pinch on the butt once in awhile is no big deal. The all-male team is where the real action is.

So here's a challenge to Warren Buffett. Step up and say sex discrimination at the highest executive levels is wrong, and challenge your buddies in the Fortune 500 to join you in resigning from a club that remains militantly anti-woman. Fifty years after I left that Texas high school and four years after the boys at Augusta stonewalled to defend an indefensible practice, it's time these particular Friday Night Lights were turned off.