Women CEOs moving from the playing field to the C-Suite

This past summer, my 17-year-old daughter traveled to Atlanta, Philadelphia, Nashville and Chattanooga to help herself prepare to become a business leader. No, she did not participate in a pre-college business education program or an entrepreneurship bootcamp. Rather, as she has for the past few summers, she played on her club lacrosse team.

It is my belief that participating in sports, particularly team sports, is a great training ground for our future business leaders, and the data support my belief. Increasing opportunities for girls in youth, high-school and college sports are setting the stage for a leadership transformation in business for women.

On Sept. 22, the United States celebrated American Businesswomen’s Day, a day set aside to commemorate the contributions and accomplishments of women in the workforce and women business owners. This holiday was first held in 1982 and officially recognized by congressional proclamation in 1983 and 1986. But it was piece of legislationenacted a decade earlier that will make this holiday more significant in the future.

Recently, we have heard much about how women are underrepresented among chief executive officers in American business, and we wonder why. My belief is that baby boomer women (born from the late 1940s to the early 1960s) are underrepresented in the board room because in large part of the limited opportunity to participate in youth, high-school and college sports.

When I was in high school in the 1970s, only about 300,000 young women participated in high-school sports annually nationwide. Therefore, very few women were provided the venue of sports to prepare them for business leadership.

That all changed in the 1970s when the Title IX portion of the United States Education Amendments were enacted in 1972 and was interpreted for compliance later in the 1970s. In a nutshell, Title IX requires equal opportunity for athletic participation for women. This has resulted in a 10-fold participation increase in high- school sports by women with annual participation reaching almost 3 million nationwide, while intercollegiate athletics participation among females has seen a 450 percent increase in that same time frame.

I always have felt that participation in athletics has given me and my contemporaries in the military and private sector a leg up. Sports taught me the fundamentals of teamwork, leadership and followership, and enhanced my ability to communicate with others. Unfortunately, women of my generation did not have much opportunity to hone these skills in this “leadership laboratory” of sports. Title IX has changed that.

When Title IX came into effect, I did not like it. My alma mater, Notre Dame, had to eliminate wrestling (permanently) and hockey (temporarily) for men while it attempted comply with Title IX. However, as the father of two daughters, I applaud it. I encouraged my daughters to play sports for not only their physical well-being, but also to help develop the skills necessary for success.

I saw firsthand how my older daughter’s volleyball and younger daughter’s lacrosse experiences helped them become better communicators and leaders; learn how to win and lose with class and dignity; and deal with adversity. These experiences will provide them with the characteristics necessary for success.

The data reflect that those women who played sports in high school and/or college are better positioned for business success. Ernst &Young conducted a survey of more than 800 high-level executives and found that 90 percent of the women sampled played sports and among women holding a C-Suite (CEO, CFO, COO, etc.) position, that proportion went up to 96 percent.

Remember that women holding those positions are mostly in their 40s through 60s, so fewer of their peers had opportunities to participate in sports. Think of how the 10-fold increase in female participation in high school sports will impact the C-Suite in the coming years. I think you will see similar increases in the number of women CEOs.

This is great news for American business! Women will be better prepared to lead businesses because of their athletic experiences, increasing the depth and diversity of business leadership, further strengthening our economy. Title IX evened the athletic field, which now has evened the opportunity for business leadership.

I had a great summer watching my daughter score goals and help lead her team to many victories, but I am more excited by how that experience will impact her future. On September 22 in the coming years, I plan on celebrating the strides made by the American businesswoman, made possible by the athletic opportunities provided by Title IX.

The writer is dean of Augusta University’s James M. Hull College of Business. Reach him at rfranza@augusta.edu.

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