How Team Sport Could Help Fix The Gender Leadership Gap

Growing up, there was nothing quite like the sting of being the last person chosen for team sports. If this was you and you happen to be a woman, there’s a good chance you quickly decided you “just aren’t a sports person” and stopped trying.

But according to new research from tech giants Atlassian and the AFLW, opting out of sports at a young age may have done you a disservice in your future career. Released ahead of International Women’s Day 2018, the Imagination Gap report shows the strong link between playing team sports as a child, empowerment and leadership. It also delves into why young women may be missing out on these opportunities.

What the research says

The study of more than 1000 Australians revealed 95% of respondents who played a team sport between ages five and 18 agreed that involvement in a team sport helped develop key leadership skills for the future. Moreover, 80% said that team sports contributed to them building a strong work ethic and a further 78% suggested it helped them build a competitive edge in the workplace. Interestingly, 82% of those surveyed who were directors and senior managers confirmed they played a team sport at a young age.

At the same time, the report showed an earlier dropout of women in team sport compared to men (only 34% of women continue playing a team sport into their adult years vs 50% of men). This echoes an underrepresentation of women in sport in Australia in general. While 50% of men surveyed said sporting coaches were their most common role model, only 25% of women said the same. This points to the “imagination gap” effect, a phenomenon where it’s difficult to imagine yourself in a certain role if you lack role models.

While 50% of men surveyed said sporting coaches were their most common role model, only 25% of women said the same

So, if playing team sport helps foster leadership qualities and women are underrepresented in sport, where does that leave us in the career world? According to Aubrey Blanche, Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Australian tech company Atlassian, it indicates missed opportunities to prepare for business or leadership roles. Indeed, 44% of respondents believed if they had continued with team sports, they would have further developed their self-confidence and resilience. Another 35% felt it would have boosted their leadership skills.

team sports

Sharni Webb of the Brisbane Lions. (Photo by Scott Barbour/AFL Media)

“Team environments are valuable because they create a safe space where girls can stretch themselves and grow among their peers, where they can build confidence and resilience,” Aubrey says. “Encouraging girls to participate in teams – whether it’s sport, Scouts, debating or whatever else piques their imagination – will help develop these critical skills and foster our next generation of leaders.”

Aubrey stresses that this must start at home, as it’s important for parents to encourage their girls to participate in team activities. The good news is there are things both young women and businesses can do post-childhood to help close to gender leadership gap.

Leadership through team building

Thankfully, even young women who weren’t involved in team activities at school can still use this approach to foster strong leadership skills. It’s all about finding or creating a team of your own.

“This may not be your nuclear team, or even people within your company,” Aubrey says. “It’s about finding a group of people who are safe for you, who you can bounce your challenges off and who will celebrate your success wholeheartedly.”

 “It’s about finding a group of people who are safe for you, who you can bounce your challenges off and who will celebrate your success wholeheartedly.”

It’s a sentiment that AFLW Brisbane Lions fullback, Leah Kaslar, wholeheartedly agrees with, saying, “You’re putting your body on the line for these people on the field so you need each other and you’re going to stand up for each other.”

For those truly non-sports people, getting involved in a team doesn’t have to mean playing \ football. It could be joining a local theatre group, doing community volunteer work, linking up with a networking group or even just rallying a group of likeminded mates. The idea is that you’ll be able to bring all the skills, confidence and resilience you’ve developed back to your career.

“The types of skills you develop playing team sports are things like confidence, dealing with failure, adaptability and giving and receiving feedback,” Aubrey says. “But as a former athlete who was also involved in lots of other activities, I think it’s less about the sport itself and more about the working as a team and gaining the skills needed to succeed in a team environment.”

How businesses can help close the leadership gender gap

Aubrey points out that although many businesses want to play a role in closing the gender gap, they don’t know where to start.

“One of the most exciting things about this research is that it points to things that businesses can do right away to create change,” she says.

A great place to start is by auditing the processes and infrastructure within your business. At Atlassian, this starts with the hiring process.

“We’ve gotten rid of the idea of looking for a ‘culture fit’ when hiring,” she says. “Research shows that unconscious bias can creep in, due to the way we process information.”

Instead, the company looks to structural behavioural interviewing to better evaluate applications and ensure everyone gets a fair go – regardless of their gender, age, race or disabilities.

However, it’s not just about achieving diversity within your company. In order to really instigate change for the next generation, Aubrey says women must be visible within leadership roles.

“This is not just about giving girls and other minorities role models they want to be like, but also creating boys who want to be led by women and see them as leaders,” she says. “In order to truly close the gap and create an even playing field, we must reprogram all of our expectations about leadership.”

When it comes to achieving gender equality in the workplace, no one person can do it alone. It needs to be a joint effort between organisations, young women (and their male comrades!) and the parents of the next generation. So, here’s to strong women — may we know them, may we be them and may we raise them.

Emma Norris is a Sydney-based freelance writer and the owner of copywriting business, and lifestyle blog, When she’s not playing with words, she’s either doing pushups or stuffing her face with pizza. You can follow her on Instagram @emmajanenorris.