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Mohamed A. El-Erian Headshot

Augusta's Rallying Cry

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Like millions of Americans, I learnt last week that the famous Augusta National Golf Club does not admit women members. I found the news astonishing, especially for a club that hosts the prestigious Masters Tournament. It was also hard to ignore in the face of questioning by my 8-year-old daughter.

"Why are women not allowed to join this golf club," she asked. "It is a private club," I responded, adding that "members get to make rules there, including some silly ones."

Rather than accept this answer, my daughter pressed me. "That's just wrong," she said. "There shouldn't be such rules."

My daughter is right. There is no good reason to exclude women from Augusta.

Talent is not an excuse as I suspect that there are women interested in joining who are better golfers than current members of the Club. Even worse is last week's statement by an Augusta official that "it is up to current members." How could he ignore a set of fundamental rights, responsibilities and obligations that form the basis of good governance and civilized interactions?

My daughter's innocent questioning should be considered not just by the members of Augusta but also by the thousands of golfers who aspire to play on one of the very best courses in the United States. It also highlights the dilemma facing Augusta's sponsors who may well field more questions about their financial support.

Most importantly, my daughter identified one of the reasons why, even in 2012, something as obvious as gender equality continues to face an uphill battle. "Tradition" is once again used to legitimize an outdated and harmful practice. And this unfortunate situation extends well beyond a famous golf club in Georgia; and the implications are much more consequential.

Tradition often serves as a cover for ignorance and biases, both overt and unconscious. And this mix inhibits women's opportunities worldwide.

It is part of the reasons why they still face glass ceilings and second-gereration impediments in their professional careers. It is also why they are still discouraged at a younger age from pursuing math and science.

In way too many developing countries, the mix speaks to how girls are prevented from access to proper education, with some forced into underage marriage and teenage pregnancies. The result there is a much higher incidence of child mortality, domestic violence, malnutrition and poverty.

The tendency to tolerate horrid traditions goes well beyond gender issues. For another current and newsworthy example, consider what is going with the process to select a new president for the World Bank. An impressively qualified woman - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - could lose out to a man who is highly regarded but universally seen as inferior to her when it comes to the attributes needed for success at this important job.

Here again it is not a question of qualifications or experience. With degrees from Harvard and MIT, Okonjo-Iweala has impressed in the manner she has led Nigeria's Ministry of Finance. She also knows the Bank well having served as its number two.

Okonjo-Iweala may well be harmed by what is also in play at Augusta -- namely, an outmoded tradition. This particular one is nationality-, rather than gender-based: An old "gentlemen's agreement" reserves the head of the World Bank for an American and that of the International Monetary Fund for a European.

Augusta will find a way to put the current controversy behind it -- and hopefully do so by changing an inappropriate rule. But the rest of us should not let this stop in Georgia. It should also influence our thinking about other, much more consequential and harmful situations.

Through lack of awareness and inaction, we often end up on the sidelines while dreadful "traditions" are allowed to harm individuals, families and society. By increasing support for organizations devoted to right this wrong, something good could emerge from the Augusta controversy.

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