Few in the UK would know the term ‘Title IX’ and yet it is one of the most important pieces of anti-discrimination legislation in United States. Passed in 1972, it mandated that no person, regardless of sex, can be denied access to any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. Specifically, it dictated that every dollar allocated for a boy to play a sport had to be matched by funding for girls, nudging universities to initiate a huge number of programmes for young women across the United States. These Education Amendments triggered – understandably – an upsurge in women’s participation in sport.

Aside from the obvious benefits of regularly engaging with physical activity, organised sports also provide a unique training ground for transferable skills such as perseverance, leadership, teamwork and confidence. In sports, girls are taught to think on their feet, take risks, and of course to quickly overcome mental and physical stumbling blocks.  They take direction and, at times, criticism from coaching staff.

Greater yet, they learn how to lose. Losing a game – while having another on the horizon – desensitises them to failure, and shows girls how temporary setbacks can lead to future success. Within a team setting, they learn how to support a diverse range of teammates both in training and in competition. They realise that good team leaders take care of, inspire and support their teammates, rather than merely lead through power. Players also have to learn to reconcile their own ambition with the overall goals of the team.

As a former university soccer player in the United States, I found that much of the prestige of being a student athlete comes from employers understanding the time commitment, dedication and work ethic needed to play at a competitive level. And as someone who has recently moved to the UK to work and study, I quickly saw that this was not necessarily a sentiment reciprocated here. This culture shock threw into sharp relief the ways in which, thanks to Title IX, soccer has been crucial in developing my confidence. My sports experience gave me the confidence to take risks, make mistakes and work as a team – all crucial to any workplace, but also essential for leadership roles.

Confidence and other soft skills are important for businesses, and yet many women suffer from the “confidence gap”, a phenomenon in which they feel less secure in the workplace and less likely to take risks. Of course, encouraging girls into sports alone will not help to overcome gender inequality in corporate culture. However, it could be a source of confidence for many young women entering the workforce.

Today, over forty years later, Title IX’s legacy has expanded to workplace. Studies have shown that the drive and resilience established in athletes are directly related to the skills needed to succeed in business. In 2014, an EY survey found that 90 per cent of women business managers in the US had played organised sports, with the statistic rising to 96 per cent for C-suite management position such as CEO. It also found that women who had played sports in high school were more likely to graduate from college, find a job and work in male-dominated industries.

Similarly in the UK, a 2014 Women in Sport and Investec survey found that 77 per cent of women who are in management positions play sports. Inspirational figures like Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the IMF), Meg Whitman (CEO Hewlett-Packard) and Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo) are a few of many that have reflected on how vital their sports experience has been.

The UK does not have its own Title IX, and yet the impact of sports on women in business is poised to grow. The traditional gap between boys and girls engaging in these activities is beginning to narrow and campaigns are actively working to dismantle gender assumptions about sport. The This Girl Can campaign has already increased the number of women participating in physical activity by 250,000 since their initiation in 2014. This is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

If the UK is serious about overcoming the gender gap at the top of business we need to consider what more we could do to bolster participation. This requires more than just government support, but also wider and proactive involvement from UK business. By encouraging girls to play sports, we can help to usher in a generation not only ready to take on the world of physical competition, but also to drive forward the frontier of UK business through their confidence, resilience and leadership.



Karly Graf is a Policy Analyst at the Institute of Directors.