Can team sports help women crack the glass ceiling?

Story highlights

  • Many successful women played sports at the high school or college level
  • Sports increase confidence and offer networking opportunities, female executives say
  • By age 14, research shows girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)There are a slew of benefits I know my girls get by playing a team sport: learning about teamwork and how to win and lose gracefully, building confidence and pushing themselves physically and mentally. But perhaps, I can add another positive to the already solid list -- helping them crack the glass ceiling.

Just look at some of the top women in corporate America: Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo's chief executive officer, played cricket in college in India, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard played lacrosse and squash at Princeton and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team.
    Beth Brooke-Marciniak of Ernst & Young played basketball for Purdue University in Indiana.
    "We're actually starting to show that it's not just coincidence. The success in sport does have a very significant correlation to success in business," said Beth Brooke-Marciniak, global vice chair of public policy for Ernst & Young and a former college athlete herself. Playing college basketball at Purdue University in Indiana taught her how to be disciplined, focused, resilient and fiercely competitive, how to take on different roles based on a team's needs and how to get back up after getting pushed down -- all traits that are essential for success in the corporate world, said Brooke-Marciniak, who is regularly featured on Forbes' list of the world's 100 most powerful women.
    "I know for me, even my first board meeting at (Ernst & Young), I remember trying to voice an opinion and getting knocked back. It's just because I was the only woman in the room," she said during an interview. "But at the time it felt like everything that had gotten me there wasn't going to keep me there and I really ... drew on that athletics background to just think about it, what had happened, what needed to be different and you just go forward."
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    Ellen Kullman, the first female chief executive officer in DuPont's history, also credits team sports with helping her get ahead. She played college basketball for two years at Tufts University.
    "I tell my kids you don't always get to choose who you work with or play with, but you get to choose how you interact with them and work with them," said Kullman, who will be stepping down as CEO later this month, in an interview with Delaware Today magazine. "So I think you learn a lot about working with people and understanding different people's strengths and weaknesses and how then you can work together."
    Women who played team sports also know "how to talk to the guys" because they share the same experience as many men, said Deborah Slaner Larkin, chief executive officer of the Women's Sports Foundation. "So a guy who's played football and a woman who's played basketball, it's the same, the same kind of practice, the same coaching, the same relying on your teammates, the same stepping it up, the same confidence ... You start out on common ground."

    How sports can tackle the confidence gap

    More than 40 years after Title IX, the federal law that tries to ensure girls and young women have equal access to sports at schools and colleges, team sports may be just the vehicle to accelerate change for women in leadership positions, several female executives said. Current projections are that it will take 25 years for women to reach gender parity at the senior-vice-president level and more than a stunning 100 years in the C-suite, according to a study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org.
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    But sports give girls the confidence needed to succeed in the competitive business world, many female executives said. Girls who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem than girls who don't play sports, according to the Women's Sports Foundation. And while all the "social programming" in society of what women should and should not be doing can shake a person's confidence, athletes are trained not to let it shake them, Brooke-Marciniak said.
    "When society's telling you you're this or you're that, you've proven on the court or on the field that you can overcome anything. You can overcome a team telling you that you're no good. ... You just don't want to listen to whatever anyone is going to tell you because success will be defined on the scoreboard and that's all that matters," she said.
    The challenge is encouraging girls to stay in the game. By the time girls are 14, they drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys, according to the Women's Sports Foundation. They leave organized sports before they get many of the benefits from playing, said Brooke-Marciniak.
    "My message to parents is, 'Understand this: Understand the importance of sport, understand the importance of sport to your daughters for their future success and try to encourage them to get through that period of social programming where society may be pressuring them to quit playing,' " she said.

    How sports can help women network

    Beyond confidence, what women who play sports get is an immediate networking chain, something that has benefited men greatly for decades. Particularly on Wall Street, men who played sports at school could almost be guaranteed a job at certain companies, many female executives said.
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    When Ernst & Young started the Women Athletes Business Network to support female athletes who looking to move beyond their sporting careers and into new professional roles, women were "pouring out of the woodwork" saying they played sports at the university level, Brooke-Marciniak said.
    "I mean, so many of our women are former athletes and yet no one was talking about it and no one knew it," she said.
    "I think the women who are former athletes have undervalued their own experience. It's almost like they're closeted athletes now and so I think we can help create those networks. They're there because there are so many former athletes."
    Companies who have hired female athletes are now looking to hire more, said Slaner Larkin of the Women's Sports Foundation. "I'm getting phone calls from the big finance companies, the banks, big businesses who are saying to me, 'Deborah, did you know that female athletes make great hires? I mean they come in with these skills of confidence.' "
    Now the goal is getting those athletes to head back to college campuses to tell other athletes about the opportunities that await them, which is a "win-win" for the athletes and for the companies that want to recruit them, said Slaner Larkin.
    "We like to say you can be what you see," she said. Women benefit from seeing U.S. World Cup soccer champs Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and their fellow teammates play on the big stage, but they also benefit from seeing how an Ellen Kullman played basketball in college and made it to the top of DuPont.
    "I don't think we're finishing the story," said Brooke-Marciniak. "It's those skills that you are getting, the story seen all the way to conclusion is that you will succeed in things other than sport because of sport."
    Do you believe sports can help women crack the glass ceiling more quickly? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.