Can team sports help women crack the glass ceiling?

Published 2:39 PM EDT, Fri October 16, 2015

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

Editor’s Note: 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.

Related: U.S. World Cup triumph should level playing field for women’s sports

Beth Brooke-Marciniak of Ernst & Young played basketball for Purdue University in Indiana.
PHOTO: Courtesy Beth Brooke-Marciniak
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.”

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.”

Related: Gender equity gap in high school sports?

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.

02:40 - Source: CNN
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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.