Comment: Sporting chance of women getting to top

Kirsty Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry
Kirsty Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry
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WITH limited exposure and sponsorship opportunities, few women ever look upon sport as a career move, yet for those at the top of the corporate world the road to the boardroom seems to pass through the locker room.

The link was identified as far back as 2002, when a survey for US mutual manager OppenheimerFunds found that four out of five executive women played sports while growing up. What’s more, the vast majority credited their past athletic endeavours with their current career success.

A more recent study from EY – the accountancy firm formerly known as Ernst & Young – found that the higher the executive post a woman holds, the more likely she played sports at an advanced level. Most notably, 19 out of 20 with a “chief” title were sporty as teenagers, while six out of ten played sport at university.

And what did they get from that experience? A strong grounding in teamwork and discipline, the courage to take risks, the ability to learn from failure, and the understanding that aggressive competition is acceptable in the right circumstances. In short, many of the skills required to successfully run a business.

Athletic acumen certainly hasn’t hampered Inga Beale, who at the start of this year became the first female chief executive of the world’s oldest insurance market, Lloyd’s of London. Whatever courage she was born with was refined on the rugby pitch, where she played for Wasps. Her credentials in the insurance industry are enhanced by her reputation for being someone “you don’t mess with”, possessing the mental hardiness that competitive sport hones.

In addition to resilience, sport also bequeaths the ability to identify meaningful accomplishments.

Scottish Olympic medallist Katherine Grainger probably explains it best when she talks about taking Silver in the Quadruple Sculls at Sydney in 2000. The British team were massive underdogs – predicted to produce nothing – so the second-place prize was a formidable achievement.

Eight years later in Beijing, Grainger and her rowing teammates were heavy favourites, but fell in the closing 200 metres of the final to host nation China. Grainger says that unlike the silver from Sydney, that medal stays hidden away.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. EY, which runs the Women Athletes Business Network, marked it by bringing together a high-calibre group of female sports professionals and business executives to share their lessons of success.

Most cannot achieve the elite status of a Martina Navratilova or Dame Kelly Holmes, two of tomorrow’s panellists. But anyone interested in producing more strong female leaders should consider the fields, courts, pools and gymnasia where young girls are today learning skills that will serve them throughout their careers.