3 minute read 23 Sep 2020
Woman wearing a ballet slipper and tennis shoe

Why a female athlete should be your next leader

By EY Global

Ernst & Young Global Ltd.

3 minute read 23 Sep 2020

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  • Where will you find your next leader? (pdf)

EY research highlights the important role sport plays at every stage of professional women’s lives – from girls to C-suite executives.

In brief
  • When they enter the boardroom, women athletes have a unique advantage by thriving on competition, determination and a strong work ethic.
  • Sport participation helps girls grow up healthy and confident, helps young female leaders rise, and helps C-suite leaders succeed.
  • Our findings show that 94% of C-suite women have played sports, demonstrating that sport participation can propel them into successful business careers.

We’re all fighting the war for talent. But there’s another war taking place: the fight for gender parity. And women aren’t winning – except when you introduce sport as a lever to vault women onto that level playing field.

Research conducted over the last three years as part of EY’s Women Athletes Business Network shows the role that sport plays at every stage of professional women’s lives — from girls to rising leaders to C-suite executives. With their problem-solving skills and team-building experiences, women who have played sport are uniquely positioned to lead in the corporate world.

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The World Economic Forum has estimated that it will take over a century for women to achieve political, social and economic equality with men. We need to speed up the clock. Gender equality at work cannot happen without gender equality in society — and sport is a powerful way to advance women in society.

Sport is a powerful platform to foster gender equality and empower women and girls.
Thomas Bach
President, International Olympic Committee (IOC)

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach called sport a “natural partner” in realizing the UN’s agenda for global development.

“Sport is a powerful platform to foster gender equality and empower women and girls,” he said. “One of the key missions of the IOC is, in fact, to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels based on the principle of gender equality. Women athletes and Olympians can serve as inspirational role models for young girls around the world.”

Sport experience helps young female leaders rise. The foundation laid by sport participation is critical to women’s success in their careers.

A UN report points out that “the participation of women and girls in sport challenges gender stereotypes and discrimination, and can therefore be a vehicle to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. In particular, women in sport leadership can shape attitudes towards women’s capabilities as leaders and decision-makers, especially in traditional male domains.”

Sport backgrounds can also help C-suite leaders succeed. When they enter the boardroom, women athletes have a unique advantage. In addition to the strong work ethic, determination and team spirit fostered by their time on the playing field, they thrive on competition, which C-suite women who were polled in EY/espnW research noted was a bigger factor in their careers than did more junior women. Business leaders need to understand the direct relationship between athletics and careers and to partner with the athletic departments of universities to identify high-potential candidates, much as they do with finance, accounting or business departments. Companies must also develop policies specifically targeted toward identifying and recruiting athletes early on.

Read our full report (pdf) to learn more about how the sports world builds the leaders of tomorrow.

The EY Athlete Programs

EY recognizes the value of athletes and the unique skillset they bring to our teams and our clients, and is committed to supporting this diverse talent pool.

Learn more


Gender parity challenges do not lend themselves to simple solutions, but harnessing the leadership potential of women athletes is a diverse talent solution we should all embrace.  

About this article

By EY Global

Ernst & Young Global Ltd.