This piece is part of an in-depth series on Women at Work. For regular updates on gender issues ‘like’ our Facebook Page and sign up to The Gender Agenda weekly email digest.

Every year on International Women’s Day (IWD), we hear the same conversations about the importance of advancing women in the workplace – but the tactics feel increasingly stale. Don’t get me wrong: IWD is an important occasion to recognize women’s achievements around the world and an opportunity to address challenges and hidden obstacles to reaching gender parity as we all work towards this common goal.

But let’s face it: the pace of change for getting more women into leadership roles is glacial. This is stunningly disappointing, because the economic benefits of gender parity – from stronger business outcomes and higher GDP to more growth and innovation – have been proven time and time again. And yet the World Economic Forum predicts that it will take until 2133 – 117 years– to achieve global gender parity in economic participation.

The solutions for this problem aren’t easy, and they’re not obvious: but failure to find solutions is not an option. And when failure is not an option, who better to turn to than athletes?

A different approach to gender parity: women, sports and leadership

EY research shows that sports play a significant role in building female executives’ leadership potential:

  • 74% of the female leaders interviewed agreed that being described as “competitive” is an asset to their leadership style.
  • The top three areas where sports have played a very significant role in developing or improving leadership skills are: finishing/leading projects through to success (36%); inspiring teams (34%); and diverse team-building (34%).
  • In particular, sporting achievement can play a significant part in the hiring process for new talent. Some 67% said that a background in sport would have a positive influence on the decision to hire a candidate (and if we segment the data and just look at C-suite women, that figure rises to 75%).

This research provides a wake-up call for organizations both to look at both the targeted recruitment of women athletes and examine their workforces and ask whether they are undervaluing the leadership skills inherent in the female athletes already in their ranks.

And this is why EY created the Women Athletes Business Network (WABN), which works together with the International Women’s Forum, to harness the leadership attributes of elite female athletes. WABN is committed to helping them take these skills off the field and into the workplace en route to the boardroom.

Source: EY

Something different

In honor of IWD, I’m proposing this: we invest in a pipeline uniquely equipped with the leadership skills to make it to the top – female athletes.

As a basketball player in college, I can attest that there is no better training ground for success in business than success in sports. Discipline, preparation, perseverance, resilience, teamwork, being coachable, playing by the rules (like them or not) – all the qualities required for business success get baked into you as a highly competitive athlete. I’m convinced my sports background equipped me to succeed even though I was so very different from my male colleagues – an introvert in a world that values extroverts, a progressive in my politics and a lesbian.

The connection between women, sports and leadership has long fascinated me. Look at the sheer number of C-suite women who were competitive athletes: Our recent EY/espnW report showed that 94% of senior women business executives played sports. And more than half of the women in the C-suite played at the university level.

In fact, did you know that many of the top women leaders in the world played competitive sports? Among others:

  • Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the IMF) – synchronized swimming
  • Michelle Bachelet (first female President of Chile) – volleyball
  • Irene Rosenfeld (International Chair and CEO of Mondelez) – basketball
  • Condoleeza Rice (former US Secretary of State) – figure skating
  • Meg Whitman (President and CEO Hewlett Packard Enterprise) – lacrosse, squash
  • Ellen Kullman (former CEO of DuPont) – basketball

Three areas to focus on now

Here are three important areas that business leaders, national and local governments and parents can focus on to help foster attitudes, programmes and communities that truly value the unique role of sports in creating women leaders:

1. Support girls’ and women’s sports programmes from the ground up. Government should increase investment in sports for girls. Companies should support organizations that are focused on helping advance girls through sport as part of their broader talent and gender parity agendas. Parents need to encourage their daughters to play sports early on and to stick with it if society tries to pressure them to drop out. Sports primes girls to have more confidence, higher self-esteem and team-building skills. If we really want to build the next generation of women leaders, it’s time to take a closer look at the benefits of girls playing sports and help more get on the field.

2. Drive understanding of why sports matter for girls and women. An interesting
study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics tracks women’s athletic participation and success at the Summer Olympic Games between Rome 1960 and London 2012 – the first year in the history of the modern Games that all countries competing included women in their delegations. The researchers found that countries where women had even slightly more education and greater participation in the labour force won more medals in women’s Olympic events.

The effect of simply witnessing more women in the arena or on the pedestal cannot be ignored. The Olympic Games have an enormous worldwide influence on popular culture and public perceptions. For this reason alone, women’s success at the Games can lead to what the researchers call a “virtuous cycle” of enhanced perceptions of women, which in turn can contribute to changes in public policy.

3. Identify athletes in the talent pipeline. In recruiting, businesses can work with college athletic departments to spot new sources of potential talent in female student athletes and set them on course to become the next leaders in business. There are also athletes in the current workforce who have gone into the closet about their competitive athletic background. They undervalue it because their employer undervalues it. We need to change this. They will be far more engaged and effective if they and their employers value what is deep inside them by helping them reconnect to it and put it to work.

Beyond International Women’s Day

I recently took part in a discussion at the NFL Women’s Summit with women leaders from business, government, sports and a variety of other fields about the connection between success at sports and success in business. And we all agree that the female athlete link is fresh. It’s re-energizing.

Sport primes women and girls to lead, not only on the field, but in all aspects of life. It vaults women onto a more level playing field. Understanding the importance of sports gives us a new way to talk to girls and millennials about their future success.

This is also an opportunity to reconnect with those 94% of women in the C-suite who know what sport did for them – and to reconnect to the skills it instilled in them so that they in turn can value, reward and nurture those skills among the women in their pipeline. This can also help those women leaders look for ways to bake the skills sport taught them into women who may not have competed on the field of play.

It’s “Game on!” – but this time in the workplace. Failure is not an option. Ask a female athlete.