09.29.10

Female Jocks Rule the World

Athletic women make more money and hold more upper-management positions than those who shun sports—and their numbers are growing. Danielle Friedman on why it pays to play.

Perched in their chic Manhattan headquarters, Jenny Carter Fleiss and Jenn Hyman may be miles—literally and figuratively—from the high school track and volleyball court on which they once broke a sweat. The recent Harvard Business School grads are the co-founders of Rent the Runway, an innovative online service in which women can borrow designer frocks for weddings or other occasions, Netflix-style, at recession-friendly prices—that’s grown exponentially since it launched last year.

But the young entrepreneurs have undoubtedly carried lessons from their days as varsity athletes into the boardroom, attributing many of their managerial skills to their sporty pasts.

“Our coach always had us write our goals on the back of our hands to be constantly reminded of them,” says Carter Fleiss, who was captain of her track team in Riverdale, New York. “Today, I still keep a list of my personal goals posted right in front of me—and encourage everyone else at Rent the Runway to do this—as a constant reminder of the bigger-picture things we’re working on.”

Meanwhile, Hyman confesses she was perhaps “one of the worst high school varsity volleyball players” in Westchester County, New York, yet the experience taught her “how to take a backseat at times and let those around me shine,” she says. “It also taught me to seek out what I was great at—in that case, returning the ball—and hone that skill.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Carter Fleiss and Hyman are in good company. Former high school and college athletes of all abilities hold positions of power in an array of arenas, from Sarah Palin (basketball) to Ellen DeGeneres (tennis). Eighty-two percent of executive businesswomen played organized sports after elementary school, according to a 2002 study by mutual fund company Oppenheimer, and evidence suggests that figure will likely rise over the next few decades, as more post-Title IX babies enter the workforce.

While it’s easy to imagine how some of the same skills acquired on a playing field could translate to professional success—after all, aren’t sports just an elaborate metaphor for life?—feminist scholars stress that the connection between organized-sports participation and career achievement can’t be overestimated. The relationship between the two is still under-recognized, they say, and warrants more attention and research.

“There’s a whole lot of anecdotal evidence that disparities between women and men in the workplace are caused by a lack of athletic training and experience,” says Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. “We'd now like to do the research to prove it.”

In addition to gaining valuable skills, women who played (or passionately follow, for that matter) sports gain unique access to “boys” networks that they’d otherwise be excluded from, experts say. Also compelling: The Oppenheimer study found that one in six adult women identify themselves as athletic—but the figure rises to almost half of women who make more than $75,000.

Nearly four decades after Title IX took effect, some of the first tangible results of the landmark education ruling, which banned gender discrimination at federally funded schools, are emerging. In a seminal study released this year, economist Betsey Stevenson (who just took a job as chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor) crunched the state-by-state numbers. Controlling for factors like school size and social and personal differences among athletes, she hoped to determine a cause-and-effect relationship between participation in high school sports and achievement down the road.

The results were remarkable. Stevenson found that ramping up girls’ participation in sports had a direct effect on their education and employment, explaining about 20 percent of the increase in education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for women ages 25 to 34, as Tara Parker-Pope discussed in a February New York Times blog post.

“It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” Stevenson told Parker-Pope. “While I only show this for girls, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true for boys as well.”

Indeed, evidence suggests that participating in an organized sport can benefit nearly all women, deeply instilling lessons from the value of practice to teamwork, says Kolbert. It provides participants with a peer group, and a feeling of inclusion. And perhaps most importantly, it helps cultivate resilience.

“Sports help teach that you can lose today but you can win tomorrow,” says Sheila Wellington, the former president of the women's advocacy nonprofit Catalyst, who teaches a popular course on women in business leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “And that is an extremely valuable lesson. That you can live to fight another day. There’s no better way to learn that than in sports. Even if you have a terrible season, there’s always next year.”

Yet despite the growing recognition of sports’ benefits, as more women come of age in a post-Title IX world, there’s also a risk of complacency, says Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. While record numbers of girls are participating in sports, at all levels, according to a 2007 study by the center, girls are still less notably involved in physical activity than boys.

“We haven’t closed the gender gap,” says LaVoi. Also, “women are drastically underrepresented in positions of power in sports. And female athletes are still largely underrepresented in the sport media.”

As more high school and college athletes ascend the professional ladder, feminist sports advocates hope that their achievements will perhaps serve as a billboard for their cause.

Danielle Friedman is a homepage editor and reporter for The Daily Beast. Previously, she spent five years working as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.