Study Affirms Positive Effects of Athletic Participation for Girls & Young Women & the Need for Greater Equity

By Kaitlin Leskovac, WLP Summer Intern

A recent study conducted by Ernst and Young explores the correlation between women who hold executive positions at various companies and their previous athletic participation. Ernst and Young surveyed 821 senior managers and executives, of whom 40% were female. Of these female senior managers and executives, roughly 90 percent of them had previously played sports at some level. The report cautions, “correlation here doesn’t immediately imply causality,” however, “it is clear that sport can play a positive role in developing the leadership skills of female executives” and “that a sports-oriented background can be a useful tool for those women seeking to climb to the top.” These conclusions reinforce the positive effects of continued and increased participation in athletics by girls and young women.

As we strive for greater parity for women in executive and other leadership positions, it is important for girls and young women to have the opportunities, resources and environmental considerations encouraging them to participate in athletics. Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania and nationwide, this is not always the case. Despite manifest evidence of the benefits of playing sports, studies in Pennsylvania show that girls between the ages of 6 and 17 consistently engage in less physical activity than boys.

WLP’s reporting on sex bias in school athletics finds that the principal deterrent of female athletic participation is gender norms, that is, social attitudes about femininity and expectations about how girls should behave. These findings echo Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s observations of the tendency to refer to young girls as bossy, instead of encouraging the development of leadership skills. Widely held social norms about appropriate feminine behavior for girls not only discourage athletic participation, but may influence the development of leadership skills and in turn, may affect how girls eventually fare on the ladder for executive positions in the corporate world and other sectors of society.

In addition to influential social norms, there are concrete disparities in resources and opportunities in athletic programming in schools, at the secondary and collegiate levels. Today, women compose over 50 percent of the undergraduate population at universities nationwide, but only have roughly 43 percent of athletic opportunities available to them on campuses. WLP’s report on sex bias in school athletics finds that female college athletes receive far less than male athletes in scholarship and recruiting money, and often have inferior facilities relative to male athletes. WLP’s report demonstrates that Pennsylvania high schools similarly fail to provide equal opportunity to female students. For example, in the 2010-2011 school year, PA schools provided 170,630 athletic opportunities to boys while providing only 146,057 opportunities to girls.

The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in all sectors of society stems from pervasive sex bias and unequal treatment. To move forward, it is essential that girls have equal opportunity to develop leadership skills. Ernst and Young’s study notes growing reliance by companies and organizations on team-based approaches to address complex issues, underscoring the increasing value in the workplace of prior team experience. The important correlation between prior athletic participation and women holding executive positions should not be overlooked, and should inform school policies that provide for equal opportunity for female participation in athletic activities.

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