According to a study conducted by Ernest & Young in collaboration with ESPN, sports was found to be a disproportionally common trait between C-suite female executives. Among the surveyed women that held a C-suite position, 94% of them identified as a former athlete, and 52% played competitive sports during their collegiate education.
Can sports change a woman’s possibilities for success? What is it about athletics that triggers or enhances one’s ability to excel professionally as a woman? These were some of the questions that motivated me to research on my own. As an Olympian myself and IE alumna, I could not help my curiosity for understanding if and how sports can help women reach leadership positions.
After interviewing more than 20 Olympians from 16 different nationalities, results from my study showed that sports offer a unique social environment for women. In the context of athletics, women explained, they experienced the freedom to believe in their capacity and agency, especially in comparison with men. Results also suggested that sports offer opportunities for women to break gender stereotypes and redefine the behaviors, roles, and expectations that society dictates on women.
There is plenty of evidence that we need to keep striving for equal opportunities for women in business. Women still account for fewer than 5% of the chief executive positions in the US, UK, and Europe. Nonetheless, it is equally essential that we also understand the psychological and social barriers that can impair women from striving for ambitious professional roles.