When I first met sports icon Billie Jean King, she was preparing to go on stage at our annual leadership conference at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. At the podium, before more than 3,000 mid- to-senior level businesswomen, she was electric. At the end of her talk, with Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" blaring, she backhanded 40 autographed tennis balls into an audience that shrieked with excitement.
That moment of inspiration represents the synergy and power of King's message of gender equity - one she has championed since her groundbreaking and much hyped "Battle of the Sexes" match with Bobby Riggs in 1973. Her defeat of Riggs, and her subsequent positioning of herself and other women to command the same pay as male tennis victors, symbolized a culture shift that proved women could indeed compete with men and be successful.
Fast-forward more than 40 years, and we still find ourselves challenged with respect to gender equity. Despite tremendous progress in the workplace, women still earn 79 cents to the dollar of men in the United States; and there is stagnation in the number of women reaching senior operating positions at corporations and participating on corporate boards.
Breaking through these lingering barriers will involve a combination of factors, including an increase in the pipeline of women who are willing to navigate challenging waters to make an impact in their chosen fields. But how do we encourage masses of girls and young women to see themselves as leaders? What are the ways to give them opportunities to practice leadership through real world experiences?
A proven option is engaging more girls and young women in athletics. In sports, regardless of the level, athletes acquire valuable life skills that can help them succeed in school and beyond. Student athletes learn the science and art of mastering a skill through discipline, how to work in teams, and risk-taking. Another important experience for athletes is learning to manage winning and losing. The latter, perhaps, is one of the most valuable lessons any leader can learn.
A growing body of research affirms the significant value of girls' and young women's participation in sports. An online study of 400 women executives found that "sports helps to accelerate leadership and career potential." The survey found that more than 60% of those polled said "past sporting involvement contributed to their current career success, and that a background in sports had a positive influence on their own hiring decisions." Additionally, 67% of businesswomen "highlighted a background in sports as a positive influence on their own decision to hire a particular candidate."
The Women's Sports Foundation founded by King polled female executives at Fortune 500 companies and discovered an intriguing fact: 80% of the women executives surveyed identified themselves as former "tomboys" -- having played sports.
Other findings by the Foundation related to girls' engagement and leadership include:
- High school girls who play sports are less likely to have an unintended pregnancy, more likely to get better grades in school, and more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports.
- Girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem, and lower levels of depression.
- Girls and women who play sports have a more positive body image, and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports.
Others have linked the expansion of Title IX -- the 1972 legislation that broadened opportunities for women and girls to participate in athletics - to an increase in women's political leadership.
When girls participate in sports they are more likely to attend school and participate in society. When women and girls can walk on the playing field, they are more likely to step into the classroom, the boardroom, and step out as leaders in society, according to the United Nations.
That's why, as an urban women's college in the heart of Boston, we are investing in athletics by creating a new state-of-the-art athletics facility at Daly Field in Boston as a critical strategic initiative. Simmons is taking on the lead role in providing new lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, softball, and soccer fields for our students and the surrounding community, as well as a football field for the community. The project is a concrete expression of our mission and commitment to girls' and women's leadership development, and to our core value of investing in the broader community in which we live.
The push for gender equity has been long and hard. Many women, including myself, have endured challenges of subtle and not-so-subtle biases in the workplace. The next generation of women will face new and different obstacles, but the preparation girls and women receive from participating in competitive sports will enable many more of them to reach higher and to go further.