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French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde Is One Of Many Successful Former Female Athletes

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CHRISTINE LAGARDE
AP

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is up for Dominique Strauss-Kahn's former position as leader of the International Monetary Fund. She's making her bid in the same way that she once entered a swimming pool during her years of competing on the French synchronized swimming national team: She dove in and is now holding her breath, waiting to be scored by a row of judges in suits.

Of all Lagarde's qualifications -- current finance minister of France, former chairwoman of the law firm Baker and McKenzie, Forbes' 17th most powerful woman in 2009 -- synchronized swimming seems an extracurricular to leave off the resume. But if the DSK scandal revealed a culture inside the IMF more akin to a shark-infested ocean, then Lagarde's underwater aerobatics may indeed be transferable skills.

Some research suggests that Lagarde's back flips and broad shoulders did help position her to be peeking through the glass ceiling. Lagarde is one of a host of former collegiate and elite female athletes who are now scoring 10s in high-powered careers.

California gubernatorial candidate and Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman played lacrosse and squash at Princeton. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright swam at Wellesley College. Fashion designer Vera Wang was first a figure skater on the cusp of making the Olympic team in the 1960s. Sunoco CEO Lynn Elsenhans was on Rice University's first women's basketball team. And Sarah Palin peppers her speeches with basketball references from her days on her state championship-winning high school squad.

Sports advocates have long insisted that athletics teach essential boardroom skills such as teamwork, commitment and sacrifice. The actual research has been marginal but suggestive of a correlation. In 1997, the Women's Sports Foundation published a survey of female executives in Fortune 500 companies, finding that 80 percent identified as "tomboys" during their youth. A 2002 study by the mutual fund company Oppenheimer found that 82 percent of executive businesswomen had continued playing sports past elementary school, more than 20 percent more than the general population.

Betsey Stevenson, then an economist at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and now chief economist at the Department of Labor, analyzed the post-Title IX playing field last year and found that statewide increases in girls playing sports led to more women attending college and pursuing careers.

"Greater opportunities to play sports leads to greater female participation in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly in high-skill occupations," Stevenson wrote in the study.

Anecdotal evidence for the possible correlation abounds. Sports can often increase a woman's confidence in her own body, leading to assertive physical behaviors -- sitting up tall, leaning forward, speaking up in meetings -- that are more commonly associated with men.

Last year, Citigroup thought these types of physical cues were so important to career advancement, the company included their opposites on its controversialTop 10 list of things ""women do to sabotage their careers." According to the list, women "tend to speak softly," "sit demurely" and offer a "limp handshake."

Knowing how to throw a spiral or having a marathon personal record can also give women an edge at a testosterone-filled water cooler.

"[Playing sports] teaches you how to get along with men," said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at University of Minnesota. Kane herself was an elite tomboy in her pre-Title IX childhood and grew up playing football with the neighborhood boys. "A lot gets done in that informal networking. It allows you to be involved in that old boys network," she said.

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