Female executives say participation in sport helps accelerate leadership and career potential

London, 10 October 2014

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Global research reveals executive women are more likely to have played sport and to hire other women who have played sport.


In research released today by the EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW, the majority of women executives surveyed say that a sport background can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential, and has a positive influence on hiring decisions.

The research report, Making the connection: women, sport and leadership, based on a global online survey of 400 women executives, was conducted by Longitude Research across Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific, with the top five responding countries being Brazil, Canada, China, the UK and the United States. Half (49%) of those surveyed were in the C-suite, meaning that they serve on the board of directors at a company or in another C-level position, such as CEO, CFO or COO. The remaining 51% surveyed were in other management positions.

Ninety-four percent of the respondents have participated in sport and close to three-quarters (74%) agree that a background in sport can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential. Close to two-thirds (61%) say that past sporting involvement has contributed to their current career success and that a background in sport has a positive influence on their own hiring decisions, with more than two-thirds (67%) highlighting a background in sport as a positive influence on their decision to hire a candidate.

The C-suite women in particular are very strong champions of sport and the sporting ethic. The survey analysis divided the responses into two camps – the C-suite versus other levels – which revealed:

  • The majority (52%) of C-suite women played sport at the university level, compared to 39% of women at other management levels.
  • Just 3% of C-suite women have not played any sport, compared with 9% of women at other management levels.
  • C-suite women are more likely than average to say that a candidate’s background in sport influences their hiring decision:  75% vs. 58% overall. They put a particular premium on the discipline it requires compared to other respondents.
  • C-suite women note that their competitiveness has been a bigger factor in their careers than more junior women: 37% cite this as a key factor, compared with 26% of others.
  • C-suite women are more likely to think that women who have played sport often make good employees: 77% agree, compared with 64%.

Beth Brooke-Marciniak, EY’s Global Vice Chair, Public Policy, and Executive Sponsor of the Women Athletes Business Network, says:
“We have long known that sport has a positive impact on society. These findings show that participation in sport not only influences leadership skills, style and career development, but it is also a powerful motivator for female executives.”

Laura Gentile, Vice President of espnW, says:
“This study validates long-held theories that women who are athletes are well-suited for the business world and have tangible advantages. From work ethic to adaptability to superior problem-solving ability, these women enter the workforce ready to win and demonstrate that ability as they rise throughout their career.”

The top three areas where sport has played a very significant role in developing or improving leadership skills are: seeing projects through to completion; motivational skills; and team building. With a competitive spirit seen as essential for success on the playing field, about three-fourths (74%) highlight that being described as “competitive” is considered an asset to their leadership style. Candidates with a background of sporting achievement are seen as demonstrating the strong work ethic required to succeed in business (48%), with 70% agreeing with the statement: “Women who have played sport often make good employees.”

Other research highlights include:

Athletes are seen as strong role models for female executives, far exceeding government leaders and celebrities and just a notch below business leaders.

  • When asked to identify which three individuals inspired them to achieve their leadership potential, 82% cited business leaders, 71% cited athletes, 69% cited family members, and celebrities and government leaders only secured 28% and 26% of the vote, respectively.
  • Athletes are seen as inspiring because of their hard work and determination and 68% of respondents agreed that they are “motivated by the stories of athletes.”

Sport is a major factor in the lives of senior female executives: 

  • Fifty-three percent still played sport as they moved into their working lives.
  • Most executives enjoy sport for helping them unwind, although 37% also feel it helps them concentrate and focus on their work. Swimming and running are the most popular activities.

Female executives have a distinct view on the recipe for leadership success:

  • When asked to rate different aspects of their leadership skills, the top three most effective aspects were: problem solving; communication skills; and adaptability.
  • The most important contributors to their current career success are persistence, ambition and drive, and confidence.

Donna de Varona, Olympic Champion and Lead Advisor to EY’s Women Athletes Business Network, says:

“This study confirms the significant role participating in sports plays in providing the tools necessary to succeed in the competitive world in which we live. Yet again, these results underscore how critical it is for girls to have equal access to sport around the world. When they do, the positive results are undeniable.”

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About EY

EY is a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services. The insights and quality services we deliver help build trust and confidence in the capital markets and in economies the world over. We develop outstanding leaders who team to deliver on our promises to all of our stakeholders. In so doing, we play a critical role in building a better working world for our people, for our clients and for our communities.

EY refers to the global organization, and may refer to one or more, of the member firms of Ernst & Young Global Limited, each of which is a separate legal entity. Ernst & Young Global Limited, a UK company limited by guarantee, does not provide services to clients. For more information about our organization, please visit ey.com.

This news release has been issued by EYGM Limited, a member of the global EY organization that also does not provide any services to clients.

About the EY Women Athletes Business Network

EY’s Women Athletes Business Network is a three-part program focused on 1) creating a first-of-its-kind network to connect female elite athletes with business and government leaders who can mentor, inspire and open doors after their competitive sporting career; 2) commissioning research on the impact of women’s advancement in sport and society; and 3) highlighting stories of inspiration. For more information, visit www.ey.com/womenathletesnetwork.

About espnW

espnW serves women who love sports. www.espnW.com provides an engaging environment that offers total access to female athletes and the sports they play, takes fans inside the biggest events and shares a unique point of view on the sports stories that matter most to women. Founded in July 2010, espnW lives across television, films, events, digital and social platforms. The annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit is the leading event of its kind in the sports industry. The Women’s Sports Foundation is a charity of choice for espnW.