Two years ago, the Womenâ™s Boat Race got equal billing with the menâ™s race for the first time and 2 million people in the UK tuned in to watch the England v France match in the womenâ™s football World Cup. These are two huge steps forward for the profile of womenâ™s sport and itâ™s worth highlighting the unexpected role that sport can play in improving womenâ™s representation in business.
Television coverage of the womenâ™s boat race was a particularly personal reminder of this. I participated in that race in 2005 and competitive rowing played a significant part in my life through school, university and full-time employment. It is not only professional female athletes who benefit from the support of womenâ™s sport â“ there are a number of lessons competitive sport has taught me that have served me well in the workplace.
Itâ™s OK to fail
It often seems that society is sending a message to women that in a competitive work environment failure is too risky and that sometimes it is better just not to try.
Sport can impart a different mindset: one that teaches you to enjoy a challenge not fear it. Sport teaches you to learn from your losses and not let them hold you back, to enjoy the wins and use them to spur you on. In my case, sport has made me more likely to ask for a promotion, apply for a job for which Iâ™m not qualified and speak up in a meeting when I disagree.
Learn to feel comfortable in your own skin
An important lesson and one every person, even a spectator, can learn from sport is that a womanâ™s body is a powerful tool for achieving her dreams, not just an object to be admired. When engaging with the media, the success of a woman frequently appears more related to her dress size than her efforts.
I am unusually tall and broad, which led me to feel uncomfortable and unfeminine as a teenager. Rowing totally changed my relationship with my body, allowing me to see my height and broad shoulders as an advantage. Body confidence undoubtedly makes me happier to take part in an industry panel or comfortable when presenting to important clients.
You have the power to drive your own success
Sport teaches women that hard work leads to tangible results. Although the business world is hardly a perfect meritocracy, my experience of training hard and preparing for big races has given me more confidence and a belief that success is in my control. Even if bad luck means my best-laid plans are thwarted, I will at least ask âśWhy?âť when my ideas and perseverance donâ™t seem to be appreciated.
Understand the true value of teamwork
Finally, sport teaches women the meaning of teamwork. In sport, as in business, teamwork is not just that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from pulling together for a common goal. Itâ™s about being self-aware of your weaknesses, appreciating othersâ™ strengths and being able to have tough conversations when team dynamics are not working out.
Many women fear these conversations because they feel they should âśjust get alongâť and worry about being seen as a stereotypical âśbitchâť. Sport was my first introduction to an environment where difficult conversations like these couldnâ™t be avoided if you wanted to succeed. The more that is done to correct the gender imbalance in both media coverage and participation in sport, the more women we will see reaching the most senior levels of business.
So, during the next great summer of sport, please watch womenâ™s sport such as the cyclists in the womenâ™s Tour of Britain. Or perhaps you could play five-a-side football with your mates or run a 10k with your sisters, like I plan to do this weekend? Maybe youâ™ll also find yourself inspired to ask for that raise.
Sarah Kiefer (nee Coates)