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Yesterday, the EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW released a new report that analyzes how sport primes women for leadership while boosting career opportunities and earning power. The report also highlights the “virtuous cycle” that results from female athletes winning medals in the Olympics and provides four key steps that both business and political leaders can take to support the role of sport in advancing more female leaders globally.
“For companies and countries that are serious about wanting to advance more women into leadership roles, you can’t underestimate the role of sport in closing the gender gap,” said Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair, EY Public Policy and a US Title IX scholarship recipient. “The global fight for gender parity is predicted to take at least 80 more years. Sport can help us speed up the clock by vaulting women onto a more level playing field.”
The report, which includes a compilation of new and previous research, includes data around the advantages for women at all levels – from girls to rising young leaders to C-suite executives:
- Confident young girls: Girls who play sports have greater social and economic mobility, are less likely to use drugs, and perform better in school.
- Rising female leaders: Seventy-four percent of respondents say a background in sports can help accelerate a woman’s career, and 61% believe sporting involvement has contributed to their own career success. The annual wages of former athletes are on average about 7% higher than those of non-athletes.
- C-Suite leaders: Athletes figure prominently among the women who have broken through the glass ceiling. 94% of women in the C-suite played sports, 52% at a university level. Executive women are more likely to have played a sport and to hire other women who also played.
- Among corporate leaders who have a background in sport: DuPont Former CEO Ellen Kullman who played basketball, HP CEO Meg Whitman a squash and lacrosse player, and Mondelez International CEO Irene Rosenfeld, a basketball player.
“The evidence is clear: Sports matter,” said Laura Gentile, Vice President and Founder of espnW and a US Title IX scholarship recipient. “Participating in sports has a deep and definitive impact on the course of a woman’s life, and we can see from the research that sports help to provide women with the tools we need to succeed and lead.”
The report also includes new findings from a Peterson Institute for International Economics study, commissioned by EY, that tracks women’s athletic participation and success at the Summer Olympic Games between Rome 1960 and London 2012 – the first year in the history of the modern Games that all countries competing included women in their delegations. Among the findings:
- Whether a female athlete participates in the Games or wins a medal is a complex product of a country’s socio-economic environment and factors are different from those that govern men’s success in sports.
- Women who had even slightly higher education and greater participation in the labor force won more medals in Olympic events. This was the case even for modestly sized delegations from small or poor countries.
- Factors such as better education, more labor force participation, good health and the percentage of the population that is urbanized lead to more medals for women in Olympic events.
- Furthermore, the Peterson study notes, the effect of simply witnessing more women in the arena or on the pedestal cannot be ignored. Women’s success at the Games can lead to what the researchers call a “virtuous cycle” of enhanced perceptions of women, which in turn can contribute to changes in public policy.
“London 2012 marked a historic moment in the Olympic movement with women athletes participating from every nation that sent a delegation. And now, for the first time in Olympic history, four members of the International Olympic Committee Executive Board are women,” said Donna de Varona, an Olympic Champion and Lead Advisor for the EY Women Athletes Business Network. “These athletes and leaders are transforming the Olympic landscape – which we now know has a positive ripple effect in society that is much broader.”
The EY and espnW report concluded that increasing gender parity, including women’s participation in sport, does not lend itself to simple solutions. Yet there are four steps both business and political leaders can take to support the role of sport in advancing more female leaders around the world:
- Support girls’ and women’s sports programs from the ground up. Companies should support NGO’s focused on helping advance girls through sport as part of their broader corporate responsibility and gender parity agenda.
- Drive understanding of why sports matter. More research should be conducted by both the public and private sector to highlight the vital connection between sport and leadership for girls and women. EY’s Women Athletes Business Network and espnW work to showcase new research and facilitate the dialogue about the advantages that women athletes bring to companies and countries globally.
- Identify athletes in your talent pipeline. Working with college athletic departments can help businesses spot potential talent – in particular, that of female student athletes, who research has shown are more likely to make it to top leadership. .
- Ensure accountability for gender parity. When opportunities arise, enlist female sport figures as role models to tell their stories of triumph and determination. For example, consider female sports figures to ‘headline’ corporate events. Organizations should also support their female athletes internally. Celebrating and supporting these stories is a great opportunity for employee engagement and engenders a sense of pride in women who strives for excellence inside and outside of their organization.
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