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 Beth Brooke-Marciniak, global vice chair of public policy at EY.
According to research by Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, approximately 70% of children in the U.S. are dropping out of organized sports before the age of 13. This is particularly alarming for women because studies have shown that girls who play sports are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries.
EY research shows that among senior business women in the C-suite today, 94% played sports and over half played at a university level — suggesting a strong correlation between their success in sports and their success in business. In fact, of the 400 women EY surveyed, 75% said that a candidate’s background in sports positively influenced their decision to hire them. These women put a particular premium on female athletes because they know — very personally — how participating in sports can impact work ethic. So to have young women drop out of sport at an early age is not only an alarming statistic, it is a wake-up call for parents. Their girls could prematurely be walking away from something that could have a bigger long-term effect.
These statistics have caused me to reflect on my own experience as a young athlete, and specifically the role my parents played. I was a four-sport athlete in high school. I played basketball, softball, tennis, and golf. My true passion was softball, but basketball was an intercollegiate sport. I eventually decided to pursue basketball in college at Purdue and leave the other three sports behind. But my parents never tried to make me pursue just one sport. I loved the variety. I only narrowed to one sport in college when, as a scholarship athlete, it was necessary.
My father empowered me to play. He and my mother showed up to every game. They truly cared. And I loved having them there. I can’t imagine a world where they weren’t there. But there was never an expectation. They just loved watching me play. And I loved them watching me. Often, my father and I would discuss my performance after games, but only if I wanted to. I would ask him questions, and he would answer. We discussed ways I could improve, and he would practice with me in our backyard. He knew I didn’t need to be told I had made a mistake, but rather understand how not to do it again. And he would help me with that.
There’s no doubt that it was my parents’ interest and support that encouraged me to continue playing sports throughout my childhood. Their interest was pure joy, not judgment or unfair criticism. They were all in because I was all in. When I was younger, organized sports was still novel for girls. When my friends quit playing, and dropped out to be “more like girls,” I kept going. And my parents went with me. I never wanted to stop, so I didn’t. And I know that the nonjudgmental, joyous support of my parents was a huge factor — not only in my success as an athlete, but also in my professional success today.
I’m not alone in accrediting my career success back to my experience as an athlete. Later this week, I’ll be taking part in a discussion at the NFL Women’s Summit with Claire Shipman, television journalist and co-author of The Confidence Code. Claire and I will be among women leaders from business, government, sports and a variety of other fields taking part in what promises to be an amazing exchange of ideas.
In Claire’s words:
“Something happens when girls play sports — they embody the experience of not just of winning, but the critical experience of losing. It’s that process of carrying on and clearing hurdles that really builds confidence. It’s an incredibly useful proving ground for business and leadership.”
That “something” happened to me when I played the sports I chose. And it was the constant support I received from my parents that made possible the success I’ve experienced. Our EY research is further proof that there is a strong connection between sports and women’s leadership at the highest levels. So I encourage all parents to think hard about encouraging your daughters to stick with sports — your decision could affect the rest of their lives.