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The Quiet Sounds of Power

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When 33-year-old Masters winner Bubba Watson donned the famous green jacket before a cheering crowd last weekend, in the stands was the chief executive of IBM, Virginia "Ginni" Rometty. She was in an awkward position. The CEOs of the event's top corporate sponsors traditionally receive a membership to Augusta National, the club that hosts the Masters. But as many now know, Augusta National refuses to admit women onto its membership rolls, and so, Rometty, despite being CEO of one of the tournament's three lead sponsors, not to mention a Fortune 500 company, was reportedly excluded.

That wasn't just an affront to Rometty but to women everywhere -- those with power as well as those cheering on their successful sisters. Fortunately, there was a silver lining to Augusta's shameful decision. The attention surrounding Rometty's non-admission -- both Mitt Romney and the White House weighed in against it -- suggested that Augusta's retrograde policy might be approaching a tipping point of unsustainability. As White House press secretary Jay Carney put it, it's "kind of long past the time when women should be excluded from anything."

No kidding. But the good news is that the Augustas of the world are on the way out. And the islands of chauvinism and outreach exclusion that remain in our society are under siege, thanks to the disrupting power of prominent American women. That's the real lesson here: not that a sexist policy in Georgia survived another year, but that a woman in a very prominent -- and historically very male -- job forced a national conversation about respect and equality.

And did it without ever saying a word. Rometty kept her thoughts to herself at the tournament. But she didn't have to speak out to see Augusta's all-male policy become a front-page news story. Her mere presence -- and prominence -- did the work of putting Augusta on the spot. (That was in keeping with Rometty's style, an engineer who steadily climbed IBM's executive ladder, playing a traditionally man's game and winning.) Ultimately, some of the toughest pressure on Augusta came from men like Romney and Obama, who had no other choice but to join the national chorus of women expressing their outrage.

This is one way powerful women disrupt and change the status quo in America -- through the mere force of their achievement. We still need advocacy groups and political activists to do the hard work of fighting for women's rights. But we also need the influence and authority of women who are climbing to dizzying new heights of power across every sector of American society, from business and government to philanthropy and technology. Women like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who exerts a quiet authority as she visits war zones and corals foreign heads of state. Or Oprah Winfrey, a powerhouse businesswoman, media titan, and philanthropist who grew up in poverty but now is known as one of the most influential women in America. Or Sheryl Sandberg, who puts a woman's stamp on the dot-com boom from her number two-perch at Facebook (while leaving the office daily at 5:30pm for dinner with her kids). Or Melinda Gates, herself a former top Microsoft executive, now redefining modern philanthropy as the co-chair, with her husband, of the innovative and multi-billion dollar Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But if we're going to end the kind of boys-club attitude that cast a shadow over the Masters once and for all, we need to support the next generation of women trying to achieve their dreams to become the next Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg or Melinda Gates. As a recent report from Ascend at the Aspen Institute noted, women now make up half of the U.S. workforce, up from one-third in 1970. One-third of working mothers are their families' sole breadwinner. Millions of those women still face a sexist mentality -- both in subtle and explicit ways -- which can slow their progress to the top. The shame so visibly directed at Augusta National is a small victory on behalf of them all. But on behalf of those who lack the power and influence of Ginni Rometty, there's still plenty of work to do.