What an unpleasant slice of British life

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WHEN JUDY Owen walked into the offices of the Professional Golfers' Association in Warwickshire everyone must have known there was trouble on the horizon. Photographs of her in the papers yesterday show an elegant thirtysomething in a flowing grey trouser suit, with a silk scarf and a shiny dark bob. There seems to be nothing eccentric or old-fashioned about her. So why did she want to work in the world of golf?

The final straw, for her and for her employers, apparently came when she refused to wear a skirt every day for work. One day, she says, her boss ordered her "not to play games". "He suggested I should not be seen wearing trousers. I said: `Are you asking me to go home and change?' and he said, `Yes, you can't be seen around the office like this.'"

One man whom I talked to about the case thought that Judy Owen was being a touch antsy in getting so upset over whether or not she could wear trousers. "Would a man in that office have been allowed to go to work without putting on a tie?" he asked. Fusty dress codes don't stop at women, in the archaic world of British golf.

But Judy Owen is right to take the PGA to an employment tribunal, because, if what she says is true, clothes are only the tip of the iceberg.

What else did Judy Owen say about her office? Enough to make you shudder. She said that the atmosphere was "blatantly sexist", that professional women golfers were referred to as "dykes and lesbians", and that she was told that women could not expect things to change by being "challenging and forceful".

Presumably women can, instead, expect things to change by being acquiescent and weedy. That has got them a long way, hasn't it? All the way to the point where 70 per cent of Britain's 2,000 golf clubs still discriminate against women. Some of them don't allow women to be members at all; others don't allow them on to the course during the week, or to play without a man, or to have a drink in the club bar, or to use the toilet unless they are wearing a dunce's hat and can whistle the National Anthem backwards.

Even Michael Parkinson, who has just written a book about golf, said to this newspaper earlier this week: "I have played most of my golf with a woman, and that's how you find out what it's like to be a second-class citizen."

The sexism that exists in golf clubs is often seen as eccentric and charmingly olde worlde, something that isn't serious enough to fuss about. True enough, neither I nor any other woman I know is gagging to get out on the "prestigious Belfry golf course" (where Judy Owen's offices were situated) on a Sunday morning, finishing off with gin and tonics in the clubhouse. But, as Voltaire almost remarked, "I disapprove of what you play, but I will defend to the death your right to play it."

It's easy enough to dismiss old-fashioned golf clubs as nothing to do with the real world - and certainly the sport is changing, and some women golfers are surviving and thriving in it. But even the worst offenders aren't quite as isolated as we might hope. Where they leave off, other clubs are often happy to pick up the baton of fusty sexism: the Professional Footballers' Association with its all-male dinners; gentlemen's clubs, including the Garrick and the Carlton; the 800,000 strong all-male Freemasons; the new lap-dancing bars in the City that may not exclude women, but make them feel rather uncomfortable if they are wearing more than a satin thong.

All these clubs may not directly impact on your life or mine, given that we don't go to those clubs and drink in those bars, but they weave a fabric that still provides the lining for much of British sporting and political and business life. They uphold a culture that takes inequality for granted, and even sees those attributes as a source of pride. The more powerful women get, the more strongly men seem to hold on to those pockets of inequality. And so Britain seems to be falling into a country of two halves. There is the half that some tabloids are so worried about, where women are getting good jobs and having fun at men's expense. But then there is the half where nothing seems to have changed, and businessmen still walk on golf courses in the afternoon sun, doing deals with one another, happy in the knowledge that if they go into the clubhouse the women they meet will know their place, and wouldn't dare to wear the trousers.

If Judy Owen got squeezed between those two worlds, no wonder she found her position too uncomfortable to bear.