Good sports: why business needs more sportswomen

Women’s sports are getting more and more attention. Here’s why that’s good for business.

Female rugby team discuss strategy in changing room before match

Historically speaking, women in sport have been a much overlooked group. Women’s team sports have struggled to gain television coverage or attract big money sponsorship. Professional female sports stars have been paid far less than their male counterparts.

Now, there are signs that that’s changing. 2012 marked the first time women could finally compete in every Olympic event. In 2014, they could play professional cricket in England. In 2016, they were finally allowed to play professional rugby. And in 2017, two million female rugby players around the world (20% of all players) will be playing in the World Cup, to be played in Ireland between 9 and 26 August. 

Obviously, this is great news for all the women rugby players out there who have been waiting to show off their skills on the world stage. But it could also prove to be good news for business. 

Appreciating the power of women

In a survey of 22,000 businesses across 91 countries, EY found that nearly one-third of organizations had zero women in either board or C-suite positions. Of those with women as part of the C-suite, 60% had no women on their boards. Of those with women on the board, 50% had no women in C-suite roles. And only 5% had women as CEOs. According to current estimates, it will take another 170 years to achieve full gender parity in the workplace.

But the same survey found that organizations with a 30% female board enjoyed, on average, a 6% advantage in net margins (bottom lines) over organizations with no women on their board. More women in business – especially in senior positions – is good for business. Different viewpoints and aptitudes mean greater flexibility, and this helps organizations spot and manage different challenges when they arise. As Karyn Twaronite, EY Global Diversity and Inclusiveness Officer, points out, “Diverse teams help anticipate disruption. They can help you detect blind spots that you might not even know you have, and help you see around corners.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that more diverse teams make for better performance. Field a rugby team composed entirely of wingers, and – even if they were the best wingers in the world – they still wouldn’t win against a more balanced team. 

Can women’s sports help improve gender parity in the workplace?

The connection between sport and business may seem more metaphorical than literal. But it turns out that playing sport is a good indicator of women who’ll go on to achieve high levels of professional success. 

According to a survey carried out by EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW, 94% of women in C-suite positions had played sport at some point in their life, and 52% played at university. What’s more, 74% of those surveyed said that they thought a background in sport could accelerate women’s careers. 

Think about the attributes needed to do well at sport and in business, and it’s easy to see why: sports have always cultivated many of the same attributes required to thrive in the professional world. 

When EY talked to 22 top female entrepreneurs as part of the survey, they highlighted five qualities in particular that had been learned on the field and then successfully applied in the boardroom: 

  • Confidence in one's own abilities
  • Single-mindedness in the pursuit of goals
  • The passion to succeed
  • The ability to lead a team
  • The resilience to learn from mistakes and setbacks

Multiple studies from around the world have shown that participation in sport is far more likely for boys than girls – and that, as children move into adulthood, women’s participation in sport declines far more rapidly than for men. In the UK, at the age of 18, twice the number of women as men participate in no sport at all each month. Even at the age of 14 – when organized school sport activities take place – only 1 in 10 girls do enough physical activity to benefit their health; again, half the rate for boys.

This has long been giving boys a head start in acquiring the transferrable skills that sport can provide. But the recent rise in popularity – and media coverage – of women’s sport is starting to change that. As women’s sports begin to be taken more seriously, and women athletes gain respect and attention, the popularity of sport among younger women is also starting to increase – levelling the playing field later in their lives and careers.

That’s why EY is supporting Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 in Ireland. Women’s sports, women’s business and everyone’s prosperity are all tied together. Let’s make it happen. 

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