Being part of a squad teaches girls lessons both on the pitch, and off it
THERE are a few commonly suggested ideas to help women achieve gender parity in the workplace. Depending on who you listen to, women should bridge the confidence gap, become more assertive and, to quote, Sheryl Sandberg, ‘lean in’.
Most women trying to get ahead in the working world will agree that these are important self-development goals — perhaps without realising that they can complete the hat-trick by doing just one thing: team sports.
The link between team sports and career success is by no means tenuous. Study after study has proved that young women who play sports — team sports especially — go on to secure better positions in the workplace, and earn higher salaries.
When Ernst & Young surveyed 821 high-level executives in the US, they discovered that 90pc of the women played sport. Closer to home, researchers in the UK discovered that people who participate in team sports are 3.5pc more likely to land a job.
Another study that came out of Cornell University, and appeared in the Journal of Leadership & Organisational Studies, found that teenagers who played sports developed stronger leadership skills, worked better in teams and demonstrated more confidence.
The takeaway is that the lessons young women learn in a team sport environment stand to them in later life. Competitiveness, perseverance, determination — it all comes into play once they enter the working world.
Would a woman who has learned how to defend her position on the football pitch back down during salary negotiations? Would a woman who knows how to tackle on the hockey pitch be better at getting past what sales experts call “gatekeepers”?
Likewise, it is often said that men are better delegators than women, but we should remember that girls who play team sports are taught when to pass the ball.
Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was a keen sportswoman during her school and college days, playing lacrosse, tennis and basketball.
In her book, The Power of Many, she said she continues to strategise in sporting terms. “I liked team sports the best,” she writes. “When I’m pulling a business team together, I still use those basketball aphorisms I learned as a young person: ‘Let’s pass the ball around a little before game time.’ ‘Do we need manto-man or zone defence?’”
It stands to reason that women who play team sports are more efficient communicators, who make their point clearly and emphatically — something to think about if you preface email requests with ‘just’ and enter conversations with the verbal tic of ‘sorry’.
Another interesting study from Washington University found that women work better in female-centric groups. However, if a competitive collaborator is added to the mix, the group dynamic dismantles.
“Women contributed less and less to the team’s creative output when the competition between teams became cutthroat, and this fall-off was most pronounced in teams composed entirely of women,” said the study’s lead author.
Consider this in sporting terms. A young woman will invariably be on a team with people who are faster, stronger and better than she is, but she quickly learns to overcome envy and anxiety for the greater good of the collective.
The world’s most celebrated female team players have talked about the perils of intergroup competition and the comparison trap.
Former professional soccer player Mia Hamm, for instance, always pointed out that she was one of many and “no better or worse than any single player on this team”.
When they are part of a group dynamic — on the pitch or off it — women who play team sports are always thinking of the united effort. Sure, they are aware of their own unique abilities, but they are also keenly aware that everyone has a role to play.
It’s a mindset that no doubt comes in handy when female rivalries and social hierarchies emerge in school and, later, in the workplace.
Writing in Sisterhood in Sport, Dr Joan Steidinger says cliques will often develop in young women’s sports team during what she calls the “Mean Girls years”, but a good coach will always do what needs to be done to bring the team back to a cohesive unit.
“When cliques form within a sports team, which they inevitably will, disruptive girls may be taken aside and talked to,” she says. “Even if great players on the team, they may need to be benched during games, pulled out of events and so forth.”
This sisterhood provides a later life network — an opportunity that men have long played to their advantage. We’ve all heard of Wall Street’s ‘Lacrosse Mafia’, and noticed how men who play rugby together tend to do business together too.
It is also said that men tend to benefit more from business mentors. Could it be argued that this is because they have more experience of the coach/player relationship? A good coach is much like a good mentor — they act as champion, cheerleader and confidante; recognising the potential of their player and pushing them towards it.
This in turn builds self-esteem and confidence, which we all know is just as important as competence in the workplace.
In an interview with this newspaper earlier this year, Irish women’s rugby captain Niamh Briggs admitted that she didn’t have a lot of confidence when she was younger, “but playing sport at a high level gives you that belief that you can be whatever you want to be”.
Sportswomen everywhere will no doubt agree.
Would a woman who has learned to defend her position on the football pitch back down during salary negotiations?