The Glass Ceiling and the Grass Ceiling:
Gender in Informal Networks

by Ria Panneer, Economics and Management Information Systems

Abstract: This article explores the persisting impact of gender bias within the labor force, namely through the presence of golf in higher levels of corporate institutions. Does the sport of golf, when used as a networking tool, contribute to the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions? Considering the findings of McGuire (2002), this piece examines the possibility that systemic challenges faced by women in building strong networks are exacerbated by the regular use of golf as a tool to network both formally and informally. This article posits the conclusion that traditional gender roles and expectations leave women with less hours in the day to golf than men, which therefore limits women’s access to influential networks that are crucial for career advancement. The concept of the “grass ceiling” is examined, suggesting that the prominence of golf in executive careers acts as a barrier to women’s entry into informal networks. Consequently, upward mobility in the careers of women in positions of leadership is collectively hindered. The author extends their inquiry to whether women in leadership can integrate into men-dominated golfing networks, despite systemic barriers, if the number of women golfers increases. If women are provided entry into these networks after their golfing uptake increases, the sport can be used to construct networks for both men and women alike. The conclusion proposes that redefining golf as a networking tool for both genders may help alleviate structural economic gaps in influence. 

golf, gender bias, informal networks, grass ceiling 

As social awareness around gender equity has increased since the 20th century, the word “golf” has less and less been used as an acronym for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.” But the fact persists that far too many players believe that the name “golf” originated from an acronym that palpably inhibits women from holding power and influence. The misogynistic acronym remains a common reference among golfers, solidifying the arena of golf as a man’s world. Two truths exist: sexism permeates throughout the sport of golf, yet golf is the only sport used consistently through a variety of careers as a major form of networking. In corporate settings, women hold an alarming minority of leadership positions. How does the use of golf to network uphold systems of misogyny and exclusion of women in the workplace? 

Former CEO of IBM Sam Palmisano stepped down in 2012, hiring successor Virginia Rometty and directly crediting her expertise in growth strategy. Virginia Rometty had climbed IBM’s ladder for forty years prior to being hired as chief executive officer. Palmisano reminded the public that, “Ginni got it because she deserved it. It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies” (Jenkins, 2012). As IBM itself sponsors the famous Masters Tournament, all of the company’s former CEOs were immediately offered membership to the private Augusta National Golf Club. Augusta National, a notoriously picky golf club, openly declared its green men-only from its creation in 1930 up until 2012. It wasn’t until 2014 that Augusta National extended an offer of membership to Virginia Rometty, despite her formidable position in a company generous enough to repeatedly sponsor the Masters (Weinman, 2014). At the highest levels of business in the United States, women are still denied access to key networks due to their gender. When the public must fight for years to remind men golfers that they cannot place a ban on women, we must understand that golf is a sport inherently rooted in structures of men power. To equate positions of leadership amongst all genders, we may have to consider deconstructing its use as a form of networking. 

It is clear that the glass ceiling is an invisible barrier preventing women and minorities from advancing professionally. The grass ceiling, I believe, is one of the systems that continue to keep women away from the nexus of power. It is the prominence of golf in executive careers and its exclusion of women from informal networks. Why are men executives so eager to spend hours on the green networking informally when they could make their connections in a professional setting, e.g., at galas, work dinners, or in the office? I theorize that women are more inclined to network in these aforementioned professional settings because they have less privilege than men do to spend hours outside of the office golfing.  

The modern American woman’s ability to engage in a career equal in impact to that of a modern American man’s is hindered by the traditional American woman’s role to act solely as a mother, wife, and homemaker. This role assigned to women in the traditional patriarchy enables men to conduct their careers without much obligation to spend time caretaking. The working mother is then left with a product of both the traditional patriarchy and the model of contemporary gender equality: she is expected to divide her time accordingly to conduct a full career while keeping a household afloat. Parker (2015) notes this dynamic, arguing that “part of [the fact that mothers are found much more likely than fathers to report experiencing significant career interruptions in order to attend to their families’ needs] is due to the fact that gender roles are lagging behind labor force trends.” Men are aware of this, of the troubling fact that most working women in families are afforded only a fraction of the free time that working men in families receive, due to their caretaking responsibilities. Free time used golfing by men is often paid for in time spent by women on childcare, household maintenance, etc. Therefore, women are given fewer opportunities to build strong networks, particularly through their lack of time to golf. By the nature of their formation, different office networks each contain individuals with similar levels of seniority and power. Another truth is that networks are gendered, according to status characteristics theory (McGuire, 2002). What then emerges is a pattern where women-centric office networks are less beneficial to moving up in a company than men networks are. Women-dominated networks are lower in concentration of high-influence employees, meaning that the inherent genderedness of networks contributes to the age-old reality that moving up in a company as a woman is far more difficult than making headway as a man. Golf remains a heavy perpetrator in this structure of power and influence, as it consistently allows men to keep their informal networks closed off from women. 

The question remains of whether a woman who is equally competent in golf is able to enter the informal networks that golf creates for men. To prove that a woman in business who golfs can certainly take part in the ‘business talk’ and informal decision-making that occurs on the green will then prove that golfing in business may not be a practice detrimental to the success of women in roles of leadership. But only a quarter of men golfers “are interested or very interested in playing casual golf with women golfers in the future” (Women & Golf Staff, 2015). The prevailing nature of golfing in business prevents women from fully integrating themselves into the culture. Historical exclusion, stereotypes against women golfers, biases against their expertise—each one of these factors push men forth to shut women out from their seemingly sacred time spent on the green. Men may find comfort in the tradition of a men-only course, whether they feel direct biases against a woman’s ability to golf or not. Men executives may feel more at ease on an all-men course, believing they can speak and act more freely without the presence of women. Mixed-gender games can be perceived to necessitate more careful behavior and language, and because golf has traditionally been a men-dominated sport, merely existing as a woman in the arena makes one susceptible to being seen as an invasion. Accordingly, if the number of golf-playing women executives increases and the sport loses its men-dominance, the benchmarks that dictate who is given entry into informal golf networks may move further out of the woman’s reach. When women break through certain barriers in attempts to shatter the glass ceiling, men tend to build the glass ceiling back up higher. If this phenomenon is triggered by an influx of competent women golfers in business, it will become apparent that the use of golf to network systematically excludes women. 

Part of the equation that leaves women out from participating in golf-facilitated networking is women themselves. Decades of ridicule pushed upon women who make efforts to regularly golf have discouraged women executives from attempting to involve themselves at all. Men executives in the sport often have great confidence and pride in one another’s golfing skill and ability, a confidence that is rarely given to women executives. In office networks created through golfing, women are subject to far more judgment when their game is poorer than the game of the men surrounding them. But men executives hasten to blame the disparities in golf uptake between men and women on the latter sex rather than taking accountability themselves. Though it is up to women leaders to insert themselves into the equation of golfing plus informal networking, a surfeit of factors deters them–factors that are almost entirely effectuated by men.  

Several factors innate to the utilization of golf in informal networking contribute to the endorsement of men power structures in business. Gender will long remain a master status for women in positions of leadership, reducing any women executive’s chance at breaking through the grass ceiling. The final objective is to rid the workforce of the grass ceiling itself and to transform the culture of golf from one that intrinsically excludes women from networks into one that builds networks for all genders. When women executives can circumvent the obstacles that accompany golfing amongst a majority of men executives, they can effectively use the sport as a tool to strengthen their networks. Casually golfing without separations of gender can help equate the differences in power between men-concentrated networks and women-concentrated networks. As men-concentrated networks are currently likely to involve more individuals with influence than women-concentrated networks–perhaps due to the ability of men to spend more time networking–providing women in leadership an unabated entrance into the corporate culture of golf may significantly help equate these structural gaps in power and influence. 


Jenkins, S. (2012, May 29). Augusta National has business to handle in considering Ginni Rometty. The Washington Post. 

McGuire, G. M. (2002). Gender, race, and the shadow structure: A study of informal networks and inequality in a work organization. Gender and Society, 16(3), 303–322. 

Parker, K. (2015, October 1). Women more than men adjust their careers for family life. Pew Research Center. 

Weinman, S. (2014, November 13). IBM CEO Ginni Rometty is Augusta National’s third female member. Golf Digest. 

Women & Golf Staff. (2015, February 6). Women & Golf Survey. Women and Golf.

Acknowledgements: To Dr. James Coverdill and Ms. Emily Tingle, for furthering my love for sociology. To my mother and father, Shalini Saba and Ganesh Panneer, for always reading my writing.

Citation Style: APA