I love hockey. I love the intensity, the camaraderie, and the tradition. Growing up, hockey was, and still is, a centrepiece in my household. Many other sports bring my family together – baseball, football, the Olympics – but despite our love for watching sports, neither my sister nor I ever played team sports and we each quit individual sports by the time we reached high school.
Anna Kessel’s Eat, Sweat, Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives addresses this widespread disconnect between women (and girls) and sport. Her book is primarily about encouraging women to embrace, participate in, and find enjoyment in sport.
Underpinning her argument is a discussion of the numerous obstacles women face when engaging in sports and fitness, a traditionally male-dominated territory.
As I was reading this book, I immediately drew parallels between the barriers women face participating in sports and pursuing a career in business. Kessel’s discussion of the importance of female role models and normalizing the idea of women at the top seemed particularly applicable to both worlds.
The Importance of Female Role Models at Every Level – Not Just the Top
One of Kessel’s main arguments is that we need more women to act as role models for younger generations of girls by demonstrating what being a sporty woman looks like (although it is not a singular, fixed image).
Kessel strongly advocates for everyday women – not just the Serena Williams’ and Maria Sharapova’s – to pick up the gauntlet, lace up their shoes, and start sweating. She particularly calls on parents to act as role models to their children, encouraging them to be active and lead by example.
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Studies have proven the comparative success of everyday women as role models: a 2011 study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly argues that “mid-level female role models” were particularly inspiring to women because they could identity with them and saw their professional success as attainable.
But it’s still important to have female role models in high-ranking, leadership roles. A KPMG study on women’s leadership in the business world revealed the following attitudes among women:
- 82% percent of professional working women believe access to and networking with female leaders will help them advance in their career, regardless of their professional level;
- 86% of women report when they see more women in leadership, they are encouraged they can get there themselves; and
- 88% of women are encouraged by the women they see in leadership roles today.
Changing our Perceptions and Preconceptions to Normalize the Idea of Women Leaders
Another theme that pervades Kessel’s book is that, for many women, sports and fitness are perceived as an inaccessible, alien territory existing outside the realm of womanhood. She encourages women to reorient their attitude toward sports and exercise by dismantling preconceptions, embracing physical activity, and encouraging other women and girls to do the same.
Similar barriers rooted in self-perception affect women in business. KPMG’s study reveals that:
- 56% of women feel that “as a woman” they are more cautious about taking steps toward leadership roles; and
- 59% of women sometimes find it difficult to see themselves as a leader.
Increasing the number of female role models in both sports and business is critical to both challenging these conceptions of sports and business as inaccessible and normalizing the existence of women in each of these worlds. In her TED Talk, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encourages more women to “sit at the table” both literally and figuratively: to aspire to leadership positions and take their place at the table.
“The more we can do to normalize women’s relationship with sport, the better chance we have for change”
– Anna Kessel
Several studies about professional women and leadership support Kessel’s thesis about the ways perception dissuade women from taking leadership roles:
- An article published in the Harvard Business Review postulates that “it involves a fundamental identity shift” for women to gain a sense of themselves as leaders.
- A Harvard University study entitled Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases reveals an ongoing bias against women leaders that deters girls from aspiring to become leaders.
Increasing Investment in Women in both Sports and Business
In addition to highlighting women in leadership roles and normalizing their existence at the top, it is also extremely important to invest in women – including implementing initiatives that support women and help them achieve their potential.
Companies can invest in women not only by hiring more women, but also by conducting training initiatives to develop their skills. KPMG’s study on leadership among professional women revealed that 57% of women cited leadership training as the most important development tool for moving more women into leadership roles in the future.
Canadian businesses can be at the forefront of female leadership development by investing in these types of training programs. Luckily, the Canada Job Grant is a Canadian government funding program that can offset a portion of training expenses. For companies deploying third-party leadership training programs, the Canada Job Grant will cover up to 66% of expenses to a maximum $10,000 per trainee.