From Captain to CEO: Young Girls and Sports

Earlier this week Forbes ran an article entitled "The Secret to Being a Power Woman: Play Team Sports." The piece has certainly struck a chord with many women-- and it struck a chord with me as it dovetails nicely with some of my research on girls and competitive afterschool activities. In my work I find that many parents, especially those from the upper-middle class, realize how important it is for girls to play competitive sports. Why? Precisely for the reasons suggested by Jenna Godreau in her article: Parents perceive that there are numerous long-term benefits in terms of adult professional achievement.

What might these benefits be? I'll highlight three here (but soon you will be able to read a whole chapter on this topic in my book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, called "Pink Girls and Ball Guys?: Gender and Competitive Children's Activities"). Note: As part of this research I interviewed parents from 95 families with elementary school-age kids involved in chess, dance, and soccer. I was especially interested in understanding how parents of girls chose between the two physical activities (dance and soccer) for their daughters.

1) Learning how to be part of a team- The team element of competitive youth sports was especially important to many parents.  Here's an illustrative quote from one Ivy-League educated soccer mom:

We have no illusions that our children are going to be great athletes. But the team element (is important). I worked for Morgan Stanley for 10 years, and I interviewed applicants, and that ability to work on a team was a crucial part of our hiring process. So it’s a skill that comes into play much later. It’s not just about ball skills or hand-eye coordination.

2) Learning how to strive to win, be the best, and be aggressive- This same mother went on to explain why she thought ice hockey was such a good choice for her daughter. Her girl actually played two travel sports-- soccer and ice hockey.  Her comments also highlight what additional lessons can come when a child makes the jump from recreational participation in team sports to competitive youth sports. The emphasis on winning and being aggressive becomes amplified.

When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate—because it’s banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough—if she played, like, ice hockey, done. My daughter’s playing, and I’m just a big believer in kids learning to be confidently aggressive, and I think that plays out in life assertiveness.

Learning how to be aggressive/assertive was a skill highlighted by all the parents I met who had daughters playing travel soccer.  Here is another evocative quote from a father, who is an Ivy-League educated attorney:

I encourage her to be more aggressive because she’s a cute little girl, but I don’t like her to be a girly girl… You know, I don’t want her to be a cheerleader—nothing against that—but I want her to prepare to have the option, if she wants to be an executive in a company, that she can play on that turf. And if she’s kind of a girly girl, maybe she’ll be a secretary… There’s nothing wrong with that, but let her have the option of doing something else if she wants.

[I could write pages on this quote alone-- from "play on that turf" to girly-girls being secretaries to stereotypes about cheerleaders (who can in fact be tremendously competitive and athletic), but I'll let you wait for the book to see all that!]

3) Learning to use sports to connect across social boundaries (like sex and class)- You may notice that both of these parents (and most of the soccer parents I met) are highly credentialed and successful professionals. We can think of them as part of the upper-middle class.  Sports are quite important in American upper-middle class culture because they celebrate some of the values that are activated in professional work environments-- though note that this used to apply to men more than women.  But today parents expect the same sort of achievement from their sons and daughters, and see sports as a way to teach this lesson to their daughters.

They seem to be on the right track. For example, economist Betsey Stevenson’s work on Title IX finds that participation in high school sports increases the likelihood that a girl attends college, enters the labor market, and enters previously male-dominated occupations.  Stevenson suggests that sports develop skills, like learning how to compete and function as a team, which are especially important as women navigate the traditionally male-dominated labor market. Other researchers (like Bonnie Erickson) find that the ability to converse intelligently about sports can also be an advantage in the workplace, helping connect individuals across classes and social networks (this last point was also highlighted in the Forbes article-- given hope to un-athletic women, like yours truly!).

Historically, elite women were charged with mastery of the arts, and similar forms of cultural capital, so it is a change that at least certain kinds of women are focusing more on athletics. But change is a good thing and we should expect to see more and more female CEO's and high achievers, like those highlighted in the article as this generation of young, competitive, athletic women age.