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Women, Sport and Leadership

By: Sonia McDonald • 4 years ago •

There is one saying that bothers me, and it has done so for a while now. That phrase is, “you throw like a girl”.

Sonia McDonald intro


here are of course other similar sayings: you run like a girl, you fight like a girl, and so on. These simple sayings frustrate me. When did doing something like a girl become such a derogatory term?

Redefining Strong Girls

The company, Always, took a stand against this phrase at the Super Bowl in 2015, showing young girls declaring that throwing ‘like a girl’ was actually a good quality. Girls are strong. Girls are fast. The young girls in the advertisement were happy being called girls – after all, that’s what they are.

Pre-pubescent girls don’t associate any difference between boys and girls, and why should they? At that precious age, everyone is equal. Both boys and girls are seen as natural-born leaders. But then something happens. Puberty hits and a young girl’s confidence plummets, fast. They lose their self-confidence. They drop the sport for more feminine retreats. They are told that they are weak. The term ‘inferior’ pops into their vocabulary. That’s when their definition of doing something ‘like a girl’ changes.

But in modern society, we should be able to recognise that it shouldn’t be that way, whether in sport, leadership or business.

Women and Sport

The connection between sport and business, particularly when weighing up a female’s leadership potential, is nothing new. When we live in a world which is heavily focused on not ‘throwing like a girl’, it is easy to forget the simple truths of the matter. Put simply, teamwork and leadership are essential to success in today’s highly competitive world – factors cultivated and highly valued in the sporting arena.
An interesting study published in 2014 by Ernst & Young connects the dots between the two, and it is definitely inspiring information. Their research shows that sports can play a significant role in 3 particular areas of leadership:

  1. Leading/finishing projects through to success
  2. Inspiring teams
  3. Diverse team building


In the study, 74% of high-level female leaders agreed that they believed being described as competitive was an asset to their leadership style. 37% also stated that this competitiveness had been a bigger factor in their careers than more junior women. These character affirming beliefs can also influence those looking to hire. 67% of study participants said that a background in sport would make a positive impact on their decision to hire a candidate. These are eye-opening statistics for small and large businesses alike. Are we missing a valuable source of potential leaders when it comes to our recruitment methods?

Competition is a wonderful base from which to produce leaders and good team players. This competitiveness, particularly in a team sport, creates an environment where people need to work together to win the game. Team spirit is much more than being able to work as a group, it demonstrates that you can listen, communicate, lead and understand differing points of view. A poor team player inadvertently makes a poor team leader.

Competition is a wonderful base from which to produce leaders and good team players.

Many of these sporting skills cannot be taught in the classroom or the boardroom. They are picked up at a young age and developed to meet specific sports goals. Winning in business should always be our primary focus and sportsmen and women alike understand this ethos more than anyone.

Being involved in sports teaches us to develop and focus on skills that successful leaders need. Consider it a training ground of a different kind. Discipline, perseverance and teamwork are all qualities which overlap both on the sports field and in the boardroom. It is interesting that over 90% of senior female business executives in the study were identified as having played a sport. Over 50% of those female executives played sport at university level. Is there a direct connection we aren’t seeing?

Let’s take a moment to wander back into the pubescent-filled playground. Here we can picture the girls swapping the basketball court for another, more ‘feminine’, hobby while the boys continue to play the sport of their choice, perhaps because it is expected of them, or because they enjoy it. Does this then explain why we have so few women at the top? Are these characteristics so crucial to our executive business performance that those who do not possess them are being left behind? If more women played sport, would we see a higher number of females taking up leadership positions?

Women Benefit The Team

Women not only make powerful leaders, but they also benefit a team as a whole. Collective intelligence is the name for group intelligence that comes from collaborative efforts and team decision-making, rather than the sum of individual IQs. Researchers from MIT, when carrying out collective intelligence studies, noted that when women were added to a male-only team, the whole team performed better. The result being that women raised the group collective intelligence.

Women generally possess specific traits such as empathy, motivation, flexibility and intuition which otherwise might be missing from an all-male environment.

Diversity is such a positive thing in any environment: the more diverse the team, often the larger variety of suggestions, ideas and solutions that get passed around the table. Everyone wins – the team, the leaders, the executives, the investors and the customers.

Women and Media

The Always campaign was a small win for female media representation which usually falls short when it comes to defining and celebrating women. Women believe they are seriously misrepresented or misunderstood the world over. Even sportswomen are often more celebrated for their looks than sporting prowess.

Now, focus these facts back into your business. Does this mirror what is happening in your marketing or HR department? Is it any wonder that we don’t believe we can throw fast or run fast? Are the media to blame for our inner belief system? Are they inadvertently or even outrageously perpetuating the myth that being a girl is a bad thing?

Women and Leadership

The fact of the matter is; we need more female leaders. So what can we do about it?

We need to:


Ensure that we are encouraging and mentoring women as soon as they walk in the door. Recognise that they may have skills from their backgrounds – sport or otherwise – that could be tapped into and enabled.

2Work on skills such as communication and presentation so all voices can be heard. The ability to speak confidently in public is a great talent to possess at any level.


3Ensure that family remains an important element in the workplace so that both men and women feel comfortable in taking time off to nurture both their family lives and their career growth without repercussions.


4Support female sports organisations and focus on the next generation of female athletes and leaders by opening up opportunities to utilise a broader base of skills.


5Look at your team critically and equally to determine who may have the ability to take on extra responsibility, regardless of gender, race or any other divisive factor.


6Understand the connection between education, sports and leadership and how they can benefit each other.


7Work alongside athletic departments to spot potential talent in athletes both on and off the sports field.


8Educate boys (and men for that matter) that doing something ‘like a girl’ is not a bad thing – in fact, it can lead to success. Celebrate equality!


The discussion about the correlations between sport and leadership is refreshing. It is not just about diversity in the workplace or the differences between men and women (although these discussions are still valuable and necessary), but about the specific qualities we can be cultivating and celebrating.

Isn’t it time we stepped up to the plate with courage? Isn’t it time we reclaimed our definition of doing something ‘like a girl’? As female leaders, entrepreneurs and business owners, we know girls can be strong and fast, smart and fearless, determined and successful. We just need to show the world.


Sonia McDonald

Sonia McDonald is the CEO and Founder of LeadershipHQ as well as a passionate Keynote Speaker, Author, Executive Coach and Entrepreneur.

Recently named in the Top 250 Influential Women across the Globe by Richtopia; she is passionate about building the leadership capability and mindset of her leaders and organisations.


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