MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for:What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Laura Gentile, senior vice president of espnW and Women’s Initiatives.
Leadership has no gender. And, being a leader — a true leader of people — is not easy. Yes, leadership skills can be nurtured and improved over time, but some people — not just women — simply have the “x factor” of what it takes to inspire others and gain their unyielding trust. Leadership takes practice, and is a skill to be honed and tested over time. A significant barrier to leadership of any kind is having the opportunity to lead but lacking the skills to do so. In my opinion, the best way to grow your leadership skills and get comfortable with leading is by participating on a team, specifically a sports team.
I grew up playing a variety of sports; touch football with the boys after school, street hockey with my brothers, basketball in my driveway, etc. Soon my experience playing recreational sports after school led to organized sports throughout middle school and high school. Everything was a competition. I learned how to win, how to lose, how to be tough and most importantly, I learned how to lead. Later, playing field hockey at the university level gave me the opportunity to lead my first team. Sometimes I led confidently, and others not so much. But I learned to recognize where and when I needed to be stronger. As I entered the workforce, I knew two things: what it meant to be a teammate and what it took to be a leader.
With more and more talented women receiving advanced degrees, aiming for the top and empowered to achieve, there will be more opportunities for women to lead and demonstrate their abilities. And as more girls grow up playing sports, they’ll be given the opportunity to test their leadership skills in the best way possible — on the playing field.
The more women play sports, the more likely their skills will transcend into the professional world. At espnW, we have completed two studies with our partner EY that prove the connection between competing in athletics and success in the workforce. We’ve uncovered various data that illustrates female athletes make great leaders. In a survey of 400 women executives, 52% of C-suite women played sport at the university level, compared to 39% of women at other management levels. The correlation between success on the playing field and success in the workplace is indisputable. Girls who play sports have greater social and economic mobility, grow up healthy and confident, and perform better in school. In fact, 74% of executive women agreed that a background in sports can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential.
Yet, according to a study from the Journal of Applied Psychology, men rate themselves significantly higher as effective leaders than women do. In her keynote address at the 2015 espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Player’s Association, urged women to refuse to enforce perceived gender barriers. “You’ve got to demand to be in the room, and when you get in the room, try to own the room,” she said. Such assertiveness is required to lead, and that conviction does not have a gender.